Image of porch pirate about to steal boxes in front of a house
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Beware! The Holidays Bring Scammers

The holidays are here. While the pandemic fueled a lot of new twists on old scams, the holidays will bring out the criminals, too. Empty gift cards, bogus charitable solicitations, cyberattacks and thieves who steal packages from your porch aren’t necessarily unique to this time of year. But given how consumers are overwhelmed in 2020, and relying heavily on online transactions and communications, it may be easier to fall prey to scams this year. Here are some tips for you to follow this holiday season:

Online Shopping: According to the Federal Trade Commission, it is safest to pay by credit card, which provides extra protections for most online purchases. Credit cards also provide dispute procedures and benefits for returns or exchanges. Debit cards, even those with Visa or Mastercard logos, do not provide the same protections and dispute procedures as credit cards.

If shopping on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp or other third-party marketplaces, be aware that scammers are using stock photos, or photos from other real transactions, to sell non-existent goods and even rentals. If the deal sounds too good to be true, and you cannot see it before sending a digital payment or gift card, that is a sign that you may be dealing with a scam. If you are the seller, the scammer may want to pay you by check and for a larger amount than you seek. This is usually done with a need to have you write a good check to refund the difference on a bad one. That’s also a hallmark of check fraud scams.

Finally, this year has seen an uptick in fake retail websites selling non-existent goods – many using Shopify as their platform and advertising on social media. These merchants either sell counterfeit goods or have no goods to sell. They may send you empty envelopes for proof of delivery to combat chargebacks or disputes through your bank. According to Forbes, one hallmark of the scam is finding the same ad, pictures and deals with numerous different companies with odd-sounding names, e.g., Predictfuture selling the same exercise equipment at the same cut-rate as Geoghost.store.

Gift Cards: These cards make great and easy gifts. But they are also a favorite of criminals who know gift cards are virtually untraceable. If someone contacts you about unpaid bills and demands payment via gift or prepaid card, or even a wire transfer, that is a red flag that a scam is afoot. When buying gift cards, make sure the packaging hasn’t been compromised. Don’t buy gift cards which have packaging showing the bar code on the back. According to an AARP survey reported by CNBC, one out of five consumers say that the gift cards they received were empty. Criminals will record and register empty gift cards, await notification of activation and drain the card before you’ve even given it away. CNBC also reports that gift cards sold through online auction sites are often stolen.

Cybersecurity: Cyberattacks via phishing and smishing started early fall with bogus messages about delayed shipping or coupons from unidentified merchants looking to get your business again.

When reviewing these messages, does the sender address make sense? Is the USPS sending you an email from a .biz or .net email address? Is the text directing you to FedEx but with a web address which doesn’t sound like FedEx’s real website? Don’t click on unsolicited emails, texts or chats via social media or other communication app platforms. They will either engage you in a scam or download virus or malware programming that will steal your account and email access information to commit future identity theft.

Porch Pirates: Porch pirates are the new form of shoplifting. Instead of stealing merchandise in stores, these criminals will steal it off your front steps. According to one report, 36% of consumers in 2019 reported having at least one shipment stolen. To combat porch piracy, track your packages online so that they can be retrieved quickly, consider shipping packages to your work address, use in-store pickups where available or install a front-door security camera, spotlight or lockbox – thieves do not like cameras. If items are stolen, promptly file a claim with the merchant and shipping vendor.

Mail Marauders: If you use your mailbox to send holiday cards with checks or gift cards in them, beware that a raised flag on your mailbox signals mail thieves. Criminals will steal your mail, “check wash” any checks and re-write them to themselves or even print counterfeit checks. Place your mail in the blue mailboxes or take it directly to the post office.

Donations: Charities and charitable drives increase during the holiday season. Before donating to a charity, make sure they are registered with the Maryland Secretary of State, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or DC’s Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs. Then research them to make sure they use the money they receive for the work and not to hire call centers to get more money. Charity Navigator, GuideStar, CharityWatch and Give.org are good places to search.

For more information about this or other consumer questions, contact the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at consumer@montgomerycountymd.gov or visit montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP.