Here's how you can avoid holiday scams

  • With Cyber Monday here and holiday shopping in full swing, scammers are upping their game, experts say.

    With Cyber Monday here and holiday shopping in full swing, scammers are upping their game, experts say. Getty Images/iStockphoto

  • Steve Bernas

    Steve Bernas

 
 
Updated 11/28/2022 6:28 AM

The Better Business Bureau has received reports of nearly $380 million in online retail fraud losses in 2022 so far, but 'tis the season when scammers really up their game.

With the post-Thanksgiving traditions of Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday upon us, the BBB and others are encouraging people not to let urgent or emotional appeals make them forget everything they've learned about protecting themselves from online forms of stranger danger.

 

"I've been doing this for 35 years, and the scammers are getting better at what they do," said Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the BBB of Chicago and Northern Illinois. "Everybody should do research and seek information before doing business with someone. If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is."

According to the BBB Scam Tracker launched in 2015, criminals tend to target three key moments in the online shopping process: when consumers see ads, especially over social media; when they buy after being enticed by unrealistically low prices or fake websites; and after transactions, when scammers send false tracking information and ask for more money for safe delivery.

There's little information to create a profile of typical scammers, including how and from where they operate, because they're rarely caught, Bernas said. That makes prevention the chief protection for consumers.

Unlike in years past, when fraudulent websites were more easily identifiable by their misspellings or lack of sophistication, today's phony sites often appear close to the real thing. They may be off by only one letter in their URLs, including starting with an "HTTP" instead of the "HTTPS" secure sites have.

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The Illinois Department of Innovation & Technology advises people to keep tabs on their bank and credit card statements, continuously checking accounts for unauthorized activity. Good record-keeping is one of the top tools in maintaining one's cybersecurity.

"The holidays are a busy time of year for folks shopping virtually, making travel arrangements and wanting to give back to charitable organizations, but it's also a busy time for cyber criminals who are trying to take advantage of people," Jennifer Ricker, the department's chief information officer, said in a statement.

While much of today's fraud occurs online, Bernas warns that old-school tactics such as check washing are on the rise again this year, with its practitioners seeking to steal mail likely to have checks inside. Scammers use chemicals to remove the original recipient and amount of a check, so that those spaces can be refilled.

He advises people to avoid unsecure mailboxes when sending checks -- including the blue post office mailboxes on weekends when the mail inside is likely to rise to the top -- and use only indelible black ink when writing checks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And those who may see shopping in person at brick-and-mortar stores as protection should remain cautious of age-old scams like pickpocketing and the choreographing of parking lot fender benders in hope of negotiating a quick, off-the-record cash payment. Police or mall security always should be contacted after an apparent vehicle accident, Bernas said.

Those victimized by online scams should report it to the BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker, the Federal Trade Commission at reportfraud.ftc.gov or by calling (877) FTC-Help, and their credit card issuer, even if a transaction wasn't completed.

Bernas notes that the amount of fraud loss that's documented is probably only a fraction of what actually occurs, because many first-time victims write it off as a learning experience rather than report it.

More advice and tips are available at bbb.org and illinois.gov/sites/doit/Strategy/Cybersecurity/Pages/default.aspx.

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