Christmas Scams: Don't Be ‘Phished' for Fake Donations, Charities

Christmas Scams: Don't Be ‘Phished' for Fake Donations, Charities

Christmas Scams: Don't Be ‘Phished' for Fake Donations, Charities

Jackie Lam
October 30, 2019

During the holidays, you might find yourself more vulnerable to being scammed. Many of us spend more time online shopping and catching up with friends we haven’t talked to in months. Charities also usually bump up their outreach at the end of the year. What’s more, as it’s the season for giving, a fraudster might take advantage and pull on your emotional heartstrings—and make off with your identity or money.

To avoid being scammed by internet con artists, here are some of the most common Christmas phishing scams and how you can try to avoid being a victim of one.

What are common Christmas scams?

A Christmas phishing scam is when a would-be thief uses a popular mode of communication—such as text, phone or email—to prompt you to share valuable personal information. To add an emotional, time-sensitive spin, these messages might involve holiday charity gifting or a donation to a church.

These fraudsters use your information to steal your identity or money. They may also use text or email to gain access to your computer, where your personal information is stored.

Some of these Christmas scams include:

Gift card scam

The fraudster might contact you pretending to be a clergy member, or a charity representative. Instead of asking for a cash donation, they might ask you to purchase a gift card from a specific retailer or brand. After you’ve purchased a gift card, the scammer will then ask for the gift card number and PIN that’s listed on the back of the card.

Once they have that information in hand, they’ll have what they need to spend the money on the card, and you’ll never hear from them again. Gift card scams cost victims $40 million in 2017, according to the Federal Trade Commission, and they’re growing in popularity for a number of reasons. The scammers can easily gain access to your cash, the transactions can be reversed and it’s nearly impossible to track down the thieves.

Secret sister scam

The secret sister scam is a popular Christmas phishing scam that circulates on Facebook. It lures people with the promise that you’ll receive 36 gifts this holiday season. All you need to do is purchase a $10 gift card and mail it to your secret sister. To take part, you’ll need to invite six people to participate.

This gift chain functions like a pyramid scheme. If you fall for it, besides being out $10, a stranger now has your mailing address. This could leave you vulnerable to “porch pirates,” who might steal packages from your doorstep.

GoFundMe scam

A GoFundMe scam is when a con artist weaves a false tale of woe and asks for money from sympathetic donors who pull out their wallets. Unfortunately, these are elaborate hoaxes and the money goes straight to the scammers.

Case in point: In 2017, a couple claimed they ran out of gas in their car and accepted a homeless man’s last $20. The couple created a GoFundMe campaign to “benefit” the homeless man. Fourteen thousand donors and $40,000 in donations later, the couple make out with the cash and go on a spending spree, replete with luxury handbags and a trip to Vegas.

GoFundMe’s website states: “fraudulent fundraisers make up less than one-tenth of 1% of all campaigns,” so the vast majority of causes supported on the platform are legitimate. Still, a little caution can go a long way to ward against fake GoFundMe scams.

Spam emails

Spoofing is when scammers trick you into giving them personal information. They pretend to represent a legitimate organization, business or charity. Spoofing typically involves websites, phone calls, emails or texts. **

**An example of spoofing during the holidays? Think of a spam email that promotes huge holiday savings on popular products through an exclusive website, explains Chris Parker, founder of “The victim thinks they’re purchasing a legitimate product from a real business,” said Parker, “but they’re just there to collect credit card numbers, CVV codes, expiration dates and billing addresses.”

Other spam emails might come in the form of an e-card, a false promise of a free gift card or a too-good-to-be-true travel deal.

Fake shipping notifications

Along the same lines, Parker said, over the holidays you might receive fake shipment confirmation for purchases you’ve never made. These fraudsters use the name and logo of an actual business to get you to open the email. Once you do, you might be asked to provide your account password or personal information.

You could also receive snail mail, a phone call or an email asking for donations to fake charities in order to get your credit card details.

Online dating

As the holidays are prime time for festivities and family gatherings, one might feel more lonesome than usual. In turn, you might go in search for love online. Also known as love scams, an online dating scam is when a scammer strikes up a conversation and develops a virtual relationship with you.

Here’s the scary part: Over time, the con artist will emotionally manipulate you and ask for favors. They might ask you to send money or pay for a hotel or airfare.

How can I help protect myself from Christmas scams?

Overall, phishing scams are on the rise. In fact, they’re up 297% from the third quarter of 2017 to the same period in 2018. While the same scams are used each year, the spike could be partly due to the fact that millions of new devices are connected annually, explains Kelvin Coleman, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance.

This includes smart toothbrushes, smart sinks, Alexa devices and cars — anything that connects your data to the internet.

Here’s how you can better shield yourself from Christmas phishing scams:

Think twice if something is too good to be true. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, points out Coleman. Some telltale signs that something is a Christmas scam: There’s no address or phone number for this place, you can’t find Yelp or Google reviews, and you’ve received unsolicited communication. If the email contains a URL, hover over it to see if it really originated from a national retailer.

Do a reverse phone lookup. Don’t know who’s calling? If the caller is unlisted, you’re out of luck. However, to try to determine if someone is a con artist or not, you can perform a reverse phone lookup to help you identify who is on the other line. These help you scour public records to tap into information that might be linked to a phone number.

Perform a reverse email search. To try and ascertain whether an email address is legitimate and actually coming from the business or person it claims to be, you can do what’s known as a reserve email search.

Similar to the reserve phone lookup, a reverse email search can sift through public records and connect you to details about the owner of the address such as their name. When available, you’ll be able to not only see their name, but their age, social media profiles, phone numbers and even their employment history.

Hit pause. If something looks suspicious, don’t be quick to act. “While it’s not as exciting or sexy, slow down a bit,” said Coleman. You’ll want to be more investigative, and don’t be so quick to click on the message.

And if something is causing you strong emotions, take a step back. “Always be on guard when an email or phone call elicits a deep emotional reaction,” said Parker. “Pause, and don’t rush to respond.”

This year, don’t let seasonal frauds trip you up and leave you more vulnerable. By being vigilant and staying in the know about common Christmas scams, you can keep your identity and pocketbook safe.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.