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Perspective | The scammers are after you. Here’s how to protect yourself.


Michelle Singletary takes time off for the holidays. In her absence, we offer this updated column from her archive, which originally ran on November 24, 2021.

You know who loves the holidays?

It’s their favorite time of year because people are ready to spend money. Online shoppers are susceptible to fake shipping texts and emails. And the hunt for big discounts to stretch their cash can make people less suspicious.

Online scams are particularly successful as more shoppers decide to skip the mall rush and just click on their Christmas gifts.

I hate shopping, especially during the holidays. There’s the hunt for a parking spot, the throngs of customers, and the long checkout lines at stores with 10 lanes but only three cashiers.

The old expression “Shop till you drop” becomes more like “Shop till you want to scream.”

Inflation could steal Christmas, but shoppers are finding ways around it

And despite fears of a recession and rising consumer prices due to inflation, Americans plan to spend lavishly on Christmas gifts in 2022, the highest in three years, according to a Gallup poll.

US adults surveyed in October 2022 estimate they will spend an average of $932. A third of them plan to spend $1,000 or more.

“One of the reasons U.S. holiday spending is particularly high this year may be that consumers expect to pay more for goods like clothing, electronics and toys after a year of high inflation,” the Gallup report said.

Young adults are increasingly turning to TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites to buy their Christmas gifts.

With online shopping opening up more opportunities for fraudsters, here are some tips to protect yourself.

Swipe and Buy: Social media is now a holiday shopping destination

Beware of fake sending text messages and emails. Don’t click on anything in a text or email. It may be legit, but why take the risk? Instead, go to the retailer’s website and enter your shipping or purchase code to double-check your order details, advises the Better Business Bureau.

Be a guest. Many online shopping sites want you to create an online account to make a purchase. But to do that, you have to provide personal information to yet another database. If you are dealing with a fraudulent site, provide information that can be used for future scams. Check out as a guest, so you don’t have to give too much information.

Hacks and data leaks are all too common. Here’s what to do if you’re affected.

Don’t be fooled by a gift card offer. Inflation makes you worry about how far your money will go. But that email or text with a $50 gift card is fake. They all are. Seriously. If you think it’s real, go to the store website online or call customer service to determine if the offer is legitimate.

Scammers also love gift cards. If you’re told to pay for an item with a gift card, you’re about to be scammed, according to the Federal Trade Commission. This is a preferred payment method for scammers as it is like paying in cash. It is almost impossible to get your money back.

Look for a physical address. “Legitimate online stores must give you a physical address and a working phone number in the contact section,” says the Better Business Bureau. If you have to look for a way to contact the seller, that’s a red flag. Returns and shipping policies should be clear and easy to understand, the BBB says.

Scammers have become so smart that it is often difficult to figure out what is fake and what is real. They also read the news and play to your fears about inflation, delivery delays and certain hot items going out of stock.

Let’s say every holiday deal you receive by text or email is fraudulent. Don’t click anything. Patronize well-known retailers unless you’re willing to do a little sleuthing. Your best defense is to be super paranoid to make sure the season of giving doesn’t turn into a season of taking from you.

Retailers’ stocks mean huge holiday discounts from now on

Pay with a credit card, not a debit card. You may think that you can avoid debt by paying with your debit card. And that’s true, but a credit card purchase offers more consumer protection than a debit card. Use credit for big ticket items. (But make sure you can pay it off before the next billing cycle to avoid interest charges.)

If you pay by credit card for goods or services not received, you have certain rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act. Federal law limits your liability for unauthorized charges to $50, and even then most lenders won’t charge you anything. Charges for goods and services not provided as agreed may be disputed as a billing error. You can ask your credit card company to temporarily hold payment while they investigate a fraudulent purchase.

The rules that apply to your debit card are governed by the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, which, according to the FTC, has no non-delivery-as-agreed type of error that can be challenged. If you pay with a debit card for a service or product that was never received, you must work with your bank to dispute the charge that has already been taken from your account. This may take some time before the transaction is reversed.

Keep in mind that your debit card is directly linked to your bank account and fraudulent transactions can quickly do a lot of damage.

If you don’t have a credit card, use a prepaid debit card to buy things online.

Beware of unrealistic shipping promises. Scammers know that people are looking for retailers who can promise fast and free delivery. Don’t despair to get a gift delivered in time for the holidays makes you less careful. Be skeptical of shipping guarantees that seem too good to be true.

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