Top 10 Holiday scams you need to watch out for!

December 11th · 17 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

How to avoid seasonal scams: Your holiday safety guide

The Holidays are here - let’s hit the mall to do some Christmas shopping! But wait, it’s cold outside, and there’s this massive online sale - let’s stay in, do all of our holiday shopping virtually, and order pizza. Sound familiar? Online shopping has been one of the biggest shifts in consumer behavior since the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year, online holiday spending is projected to soar to $278.8 billion.

Yet, as we embrace the convenience of online holiday shopping, it's important to be aware of the spike in online scams that come with this digital shift. While we’re happily shopping for gifts, planning holiday getaways, and spreading goodwill through charitable donations, cybercriminals are equally busy, plotting sophisticated scams to dampen our festive spirits.

On average, Americans lost more than $1500 last year due to online scams

Is that Santa? Or just the Grinch in disguise?

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Grinch stealing Christmas

1. Phishing emails from trusted companies

This time of year, as the air fills with the scent of gingerbread and jingle bells sound in the distance, your inbox may also be flooded with emails that appear to be from trusted brands. They might offer tempting holiday deals, exclusive Christmas discounts, or important account updates wrapped in festive graphics. However, once you click the link in the email, you'll be whisked away to a fake website, much like a sleigh ride to the wrong North Pole.

This site will urge you to make a purchase or hand over your personal information amidst holiday-themed decoys. These phishing emails, decked out in their seasonal best, are crafted with the intent to deceive, and they can be as convincing as a well-dressed Santa Claus.

This is how these phishing emails operate:

Sophisticated imitation: The emails are designed to mimic the look and feel of communications from legitimate companies. This can include the use of official logos, similar email addresses, and formatting that looks authentic.

  • Enticing emails with holiday offers: Scammers often use two primary tactics in these holiday emails. They might lure you with incredible holiday offers, like unbelievable discounts on popular items, exclusive access to sales, or free gifts, all adorned with images of snowflakes and twinkling lights. Alternatively, they may use scare tactics, like claiming there’s a problem with your account or a pending transaction that requires your immediate attention, often using festive-themed warnings to create a sense of urgency.

  • Requests for personal information, disguised in holiday cheer: These can be emails that seem like they’re from Amazon, Netflix, or even your bank, dressed up with holiday motifs and seasonal greetings, asking you to verify your account information. How do you do that? By providing personal information like login credentials, credit card numbers, or other sensitive data. By doing so, you’re basically handing that info straight into the hands of cybercriminals, like unknowingly giving a Grinch access to your holiday cheer. Don’t do it!

  • Malicious links and attachments: Phishing emails frequently contain links or attachments that, when clicked, can install malware on your device or lead you to a fake website (more on that in scam # 5) designed to harvest your personal information. These might be cleverly disguised as holiday greetings or exclusive Christmas offers, making them seem as enticing as a beautifully wrapped gift, but with dangerous consequences.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Verify the source: Before clicking on any links or replying to an email, verify the sender’s email address. Look for subtle misspellings or odd domain names. When in doubt, visit the company’s official website by typing the URL directly into your browser instead of clicking on a link in the email.

  • Look for red flags: Poor grammar, spelling mistakes, and generic greetings (like “Dear Customer”) can be indicators of a phishing email.

  • Don’t share personal information: As mentioned earlier, don’t share sensitive information via email.

  • Use anti-phishing tools: Installing security software from a trusted provider can offer an extra layer of protection.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was some sort of tool or software that could alert you anytime you come across phishing emails or block malicious links that’ll take you to a fake website? Ding, ding, ding - Guardio’s the cybersecurity software to keep in your toolbox.

Guardio’s browser extension and mobile app act as your virtual bodyguard, warning you before you land on a fake website. With Guardio, you'll receive alerts about suspicious websites, phishing emails, text messages, and malicious downloads, offering you a shield against digital threats and protection so your valuable information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Guardio gives you:

  • Peace of mind with 24/7 scam protection.

  • Blocks fake websites and annoying pop-up ads with malicious links.

  • Email inbox protection - phishing email alerts.

  • SMS filter - blocks smishing attempts (SMS phishing scams)

  • Real-time identity theft protection.

  • Family security (up to 5 family members)

Deck the halls with cyber safety!

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2. Gift card scams

Gift cards are a popular and convenient gift choice, especially during the holiday season. However, they have also become a common target for scammers. These scams can take various forms, from selling cards that have no value to stealing the funds of legitimate cards. Understanding how these scams work can help you protect yourself and your hard-earned cash.

This is how these gift card scams operate:

  • Fake gift card sales: Scammers set up fake websites or online marketplaces where they offer gift cards at discounted rates. These gift cards are often worthless. If you buy one of these cards, the scammer receives the money, and you’re left with a card that has no funds or isn’t valid.

  • Tampering with physical gift cards: In some cases, scammers tamper with gift cards available in physical stores. They may secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers and security codes from the cards on display. Once an unsuspecting customer buys and activates the card, the scammer uses the card's information to drain its funds online.

  • Gift card phishing scams, decked out in festive flair: Some phishing emails or texts may claim you've won a free gift card adorned with images of Christmas trees and sparkling ornaments or offer one as a special holiday promotion, complete with holly and festive jingles. These messages often ask you to provide personal information or click on a link to claim the gift card. However, the link may lead to a sketchy website designed to steal your personal and financial information.

  • Gift card balance scams: Scammers set up websites that claim to offer balance checking services for your gift cards. These fake sites lure you in by promising an easy way to check the remaining balance on your gift cards. Then when you enter your gift card number and, in some cases, personal information, these sites capture that data. Rather than providing you with the balance of your gift card, they use the information to drain the funds from your card or, worse, use your personal details for identity theft. Ouch!

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Purchase directly from retailers: Always buy gift cards directly from known retailers or authorized sellers.

  • Inspect gift cards before purchase: If buying a physical gift card, inspect it for signs of tampering. Check if the pin area has been scratched or if the packaging looks tampered with.

  • Avoid sharing personal information: This goes for any online interaction - Never provide personal information.

  • Treat gift cards like cash: Remember that gift cards are essentially like cash. If lost, stolen, or compromised, there is often little chance of recovering the lost value.

  • Keep receipts: Always keep the receipt as proof of purchase when buying a gift card.

3. Holiday travel scams

Imagine preparing for a dream holiday vacation: your bags are packed, you're wearing your favorite Hawaiian shirt with a matching fedora (that your wife hates), and your family is buzzing with anticipation. But when you arrive at the airport, the excitement quickly turns into dismay as you shockingly discover that your plane tickets, hotel booking, and car rental are all fake.

As the holiday season brings chilly weather and frosty landscapes, many find the wintry temperatures unbearable, driving them to book vacations or seek solace in warmer climates, where the sun replaces snowflakes and beach waves offer a merry alternative to jingle bells. Unfortunately, scammers capitalize on the high demand for travel deals, setting elaborate traps in the form of bogus holiday travel packages and airfare scams. These scams can range from non-existent flights to entire holiday packages that are nothing but a mirage.

This is how these holiday travel scams operate:

  • Fake travel websites: Cybercriminals create sophisticated fake travel websites that offer incredibly low prices on flights, hotels, or entire vacation packages. They often look professional, complete with high-quality images, customer reviews, and fully functional navigation. However, once you book and pay, you may find that the tickets or reservations are fake, or you might receive nothing at all.

  • Phishing emails offering exclusive deals: These emails may look like they’re from well-known airlines or travel agencies offering exclusive holiday deals or last-minute discounts. They typically include links to fraudulent websites where you’re asked to enter personal and payment information, leading to potential identity theft and financial loss.

  • Too-good-to-be-true offers: Scammers prey on the desire for affordable travel, especially during peak seasons. Offers that seem too good to be true often are. This includes significantly discounted airfare, luxury accommodations at bargain prices, and free or extremely cheap all-inclusive holiday packages.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Book through trusted sources: Always book your travel through reputable airlines, travel agencies, or well-known travel booking websites.

  • Do your research: Before booking, research the company offering the deal. Look for customer reviews, check their credentials, and see if they’re listed on reputable travel industry websites.

  • Be cautious with personal information: The golden rule - Never provide personal or financial information over the phone or on a website unless you are sure it is legitimate.

  • Verify travel details: After booking, directly contact the airline or hotel to confirm your reservations. If they have no record of your booking, it’s probably a scam.

4. Missed delivery notification scam texts

Online delivery scams are on the rise, particularly during the holiday season. As more people rely on home deliveries, fraudsters are exploiting this trend with missed delivery schemes. The scam starts with a text message that appears to be from a well-known courier service like FedEx, UPS, or the USPS. The message might state that there was a problem delivering your package or that additional information is needed to complete the delivery. It often includes a sense of urgency, suggesting that failure to act swiftly could result in the package being returned or additional fees being charged.

This is how these delivery notification scams operate:

  • Malicious links: The text or email includes a sketchy link that may appear legitimate and part of standard courier tracking procedures. However, clicking on it can lead to malicious websites designed to steal your personal information.

  • Phishing for information: Some of these fraudulent sites prompt you to enter personal information under the guise of verifying your identity or rescheduling a delivery. This information can then be used by scammers for identity theft or financial fraud.

  • Payment requests: In some cases, these texts might ask for payment to release the package or pay for additional shipping costs. Legitimate courier services do not require payment via text message for package delivery.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Verify the source: If you receive a text message about a delivery, verify its authenticity before taking any action. Don’t click on any links in the message. Instead, go directly to the courier service’s official website or use their official app to check the status of your package.

  • Look for red flags: Scammers aren’t good at grammar, so check for spelling errors or be wary of messages that use a generic greeting instead of your name.

5. Fake holiday shopping sites

During the holiday season, fake shopping sites emerge as plentifully as twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, each one trying to capture your attention with its deceptive sparkle. These websites are designed to mirror legitimate retail stores, often copying their branding, layout, and product listings. Their aim is to deceive consumers into believing they are shopping on a real retailer's site, thus gaining access to their credit card information and other personal details.

When you enter your credit card information on these sites, scammers can capture and exploit that information. This can lead to unauthorized charges, identity theft, and significant financial loss. Additionally, you’ll probably never receive the products you thought you purchased. Sorry Uncle Bob, I swear I ordered you that unicorn onesie you asked for.

This is how these fake holiday shopping sites operate:

  • Creating convincing imitations: Scammers create fake websites that look identical to the real known brand-named sites. They use similar URLs, logos, and design elements as the websites they’re impersonating.

  • Attractive deals and offers: One of the key strategies scammers use is to advertise products at prices that are much lower than the market rate, especially for high-demand items. This includes promoting exclusive offers, limited-time sales, or special holiday discounts to create a sense of urgency.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Check the URL carefully: Look for slight misspellings or incorrect domains (such as .net instead of .com) in the website’s URL. Be wary of URLs that use a combination of brand names and terms like 'deals', 'sales', or 'discounts'.

  • Look for security indicators: Ensure the website has secure HTTPS protocol, typically indicated by a padlock symbol in the address bar.

  • Read customer reviews: Look for reviews about the website from other sources.

  • Check for contact information: Legitimate stores usually provide clear contact details, including a physical address, phone number, and email address.

If you do come across a website that you suspect is fraudulent, report it to the appropriate authorities, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or your country’s consumer protection agency.

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6. Fake seasonal job postings

With the holiday season in full swing, the demand for temporary workers spikes. Unfortunately, this also sees a rise in fake job scams. Fraudsters post bogus job listings, often for well-known retailers or delivery companies, offering attractive pay for holiday work. These scams are designed to steal personal information or money from job seekers.

Scammers post fake job ads on popular job boards, social media, or send unsolicited job offers via email. These listings might ask you to pay for equipment or for an upfront fee for training or background checks. They might also ask for your personal information like social security numbers, supposedly for application purposes.

By responding to these fake ads, you risk identity theft and financial loss. You might also end up sharing sensitive personal information that can be sold on the dark web or used for other fraudulent activities.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Research employer: Verify the legitimacy of the job posting by contacting the company directly through official channels.

  • Never pay upfront: Legitimate employers won’t ask for payment during the hiring process.

  • Protect personal information: Don’t provide sensitive information unless you are sure of the job's legitimacy.

7. Pirates of the porch - Stealing your Christmas deliveries

As the holidays approach, the number of packages delivered to doorsteps skyrockets. This surge in home deliveries has led to the rise of 'porch pirates' – thieves that patrol neighborhoods, looking to snatch unattended packages left outside homes. This can leave you and your family giftless during the holidays, and it can be challenging to get refunds or replacements for stolen items.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Track your packages: Use tracking services to know exactly when your packages will arrive.

  • Secure delivery options: Consider using lockboxes, alternative delivery locations, or requiring a signature for delivery.

  • Install security cameras: Visible cameras can deter thieves and help identify them if a theft occurs.

8. Scammy social media ads for the holiday’s hottest gifts

Scammers exploit the holiday rush by creating fake social media ads for popular gifts. These ads often mimic real ads, offering high-demand items at unbeatable prices to lure in unsuspecting shoppers.

The paid ads appear on your social media feeds, leading to counterfeit websites where you can 'purchase' these gifts. However, the products are either fake, poor quality, or never get delivered. Falling for these fake ads can lead to financial loss, receiving substandard goods, or having your credit card information stolen.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Verify the seller: Research the seller's legitimacy before purchasing.

  • Be skeptical of super cheap offers: Extremely low prices on high-demand items are often a red flag.

  • Use secure payment methods: Avoid direct bank transfers or other unsecured payment methods.

9. Fraudulent Christmas apps

The holiday season sees a surge in festive-themed apps, including games, shopping, and countdowns. However, some of these apps are counterfeit, designed to steal information, or infect your device with malware. Once downloaded, they can steal personal information, send premium-rate SMS messages without your consent, or infect your device with malware. This can compromise your personal and financial information, and your device's security could be breached.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Download from official App Stores: Always use official app stores like Google Play or Apple App Store for downloads.

  • Check reviews and ratings: Look at the app's reviews and ratings before downloading.

  • Beware of unnecessary permissions: Be cautious if an app requests access to sensitive information that isn’t needed for its functionality.

10. Fake charity scams

The spirit of giving during the holiday season often brings out the best in people, but unfortunately, it also attracts scammers looking to exploit this generosity. One of the most disheartening scams involves fake charities.

These fake charities often emerge around the holidays, capitalizing on the season's theme of giving and compassion. Scammers create compelling email campaigns, social media posts, phone calls, or even set up booths at local events. They use social engineering tricks typically designed to evoke an emotional response, often highlighting urgent causes or crises that require immediate financial support.

However, once you make a donation, the money never reaches the actual cause. Instead, it lines the pockets of the scammers. This not only deprives legitimate charities of much-needed funds but also betrays the trust of well-meaning individuals.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Research the charity: Before donating, conduct a thorough check of the charity. Look for reviews, ratings, and feedback from other donors. Websites like Charity Navigator, GuideStar, or the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance provide detailed information about the legitimacy and operations of various charitable organizations.

  • Verify their credentials: Check if the charity is registered and has a verifiable track record. Most legitimate charities provide transparent information about their mission, leadership, financials, and impact.

  • Be wary of high-pressure tactics: Legitimate charities understand that donation is a personal decision and will respect your need for time to think it over.

  • Secure payment methods: If you do decide to donate, use secure and traceable payment methods. Avoid sending cash or using wire transfers.

  • Guard your personal information: Be cautious about sharing personal and financial information. Scammers can use this data for identity theft.

The bottom line

As the holiday season unfolds, we're reminded of the joy and warmth it brings. However, it's also crucial to stay cautious in the face of the clever traps set by digital grinches. These top ten scams, ranging from fake charity drives to insidious online shopping schemes, show the lengths to which scammers will go to exploit our festive spirit. Remember, the best defense is knowledge and caution. By arming yourself with the insights from this article, you can enjoy the holidays without falling prey to these deceptive tactics.

Most importantly, don't forget that a tool like Guardio is your ally in this fight. With its array of protective features, Guardio ensures your holiday season is not only joyful but also secure. From guarding against phishing emails to blocking malicious websites, Guardio protects your digital wellbeing. So, as you wrap gifts and plan celebrations, let Guardio take care of your online safety, ensuring a holiday season that's merry, bright, and secure. Happy Holidays, and stay safe online!

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