With 2023 quickly winding down, Better Business Bureau has compiled our naughty list of the top 12 scams of the season. When shopping or donating this holiday season, watch out for schemes trying to swipe your cash or steal your personal information.
You can avoid most of the scams on this list by taking a few simple precautions. Always exercise caution with social media ads promoting discounted items, holiday events, job opportunities and donation requests, as well as direct messages from strangers (or someone claiming to be a family member or friend). If you are asked to make a payment or donation by wire transfer, through a third party, or by prepaid debit or gift card, treat it as a red flag.
Be mindful of these scams that could cut into your holiday cheer. You can read more about each topic at BBB's holiday headquarters bbb.org/holiday.
1. Misleading social media ads. As you scroll through your social media feed, you often see products advertised. Always research before you buy. BBB Scam Tracker receives daily reports from people sharing they paid for items they never received, were charged monthly for a free trial they never signed up for or received an item that is counterfeit or much different from the one advertised. The 2022 BBB Online Scams Report found online purchase scams were the most common among concerns reported to Scam Tracker. Before ordering, check for a company's business profile on BBB.org and also look for online reviews.
2. Social media gift exchanges. Each holiday season this scheme pops back up, and this year is no different. The older version was called "Secret Sister." A newer version of this scam revolves around exchanging bottles of wine, while another suggests purchasing $10 gifts online. In a new twist, you're asked to submit your email to a list where participants get to pick a name and send money to strangers to "pay it forward." There is even a twist about "Secret Santa Dog" where you buy a $10 gift for your "secret dog."
In all of these versions, participants unwittingly share their personal information, along with those of their family members and friends, and are further tricked into buying and shipping gifts or money to unknown individuals. And it's an illegal pyramid scheme. It's best to stick to buying gifts for your friends from trustworthy businesses, and check BBB.org before you buy.
3. Holiday apps. Apple's App Store and Google Play list dozens of holiday-themed apps where children can video chat live with Santa, light the menorah, watch Santa feed live reindeer, track his sleigh on Christmas Eve or relay their holiday wish lists. Review privacy policies to see what information will be collected. Be wary of free apps, as they can sometimes contain more advertising than apps that require a nominal fee. Free apps can also contain malware. Be sure to read reviews as well.
4. Fake texts that say you've been hacked. BBB receives tons of reports on Scam Tracker about fake texts and emails, many of them claiming your Amazon, PayPal, Netflix or bank account has been compromised. Victims are told there has been suspicious activity on one of their accounts, and it further urges them to take immediate action to prevent the account from being compromised. Be extra cautious about unsolicited calls, emails and texts. Be sure to avoid clicking on any links within the messages and contact the business directly to see if there's any concerns. You can usually log into your account with the company to see if there are any issues.
5. Free gift cards. Nothing brings good cheer like the word "free." Scammers have been known to take advantage of this weakness by sending bulk phishing emails requesting personal information to receive free gift cards. In some of these emails, scammers impersonate legitimate companies and promise gift cards to reward their loyal customers. They may also use pop-up ads or send text messages with links saying you were randomly selected as the winner of a prize.
If you have received an unsolicited email with gift card offers, do not open it. Instead, mark it as spam or junk. If you inadvertently open an email like this, be sure to not click on any links or open attachments.
6. Temporary holiday jobs. Retailers typically hire seasonal workers to help meet the demands of holiday shoppers. Shippers and delivery services are top holiday employers this year because of the increase in online orders and the need to get most of these packages delivered before Christmas.
These jobs can be a great way to make extra money, however, job seekers need to be watchful for false ads for employment that are aimed at stealing your money and personal information during the job application or could lure you into conducting illegal work with no pay.
In some cases, the ads are a ploy to get you to accept a job, giving the "employer" what sounds like a legitimate reason to request your bank account information and social security number. There's also reshipping scams where you're asked to accept packages at home and reship them to another address. They usually advertise enticing roles, like "shipping manager," and offer high pay for remote work. Victims report they reshipped packages for a month and their "employer" disappeared without paying. Sadly, the reshipped packages are filled with stolen goods, which means you're also being asked to do work that is illegal.
7. Look-alike websites. The holiday season brings endless emails offering deals, sales and bargains. Be careful about which sites you're visiting. Scammers like to imposter trusted brands, and by clicking over to the wrong site, you could be downloading malware to your computer, making dead-end purchases or sharing private information. Be sure to only visit a company on their official website. You can check their listing on BBB.org/search to verify you have the right one.
8. Fake charities. The last few weeks of the year is a busy time for charitable donations. Donors are advised to look out for fraudulent charities and scammers pretending to be individuals in need. Avoid impromptu donation decisions to unfamiliar organizations. Check names carefully, as many look alike and sound alike. Remember that responsible organizations will welcome a gift tomorrow as much as they do today, so don't be pressured by a solicitor. Verify a charity at BBB's give.org. When possible, donate to the charity through their website and use a credit card.
9. Fake shipping notifications. More consumers are making purchases online, and there is also an increase in the number of notifications about shipping details from retailers and carriers. Scammers are using this new surge to send phishing emails with links enclosed that may allow unwanted access to your private information or download malware onto your device. They may also try to trick people into paying new shipping fees.
10. Advent calendars. This year, there seem to be more advent calendars for sale than ever; CNN has a list of over 60 calendars, and many are in hot demand. In past years, BBB received reports to Scam Tracker about advent calendar ads on social media not delivering as promised. Some were not received, and others received inferior products or incomplete orders. Consumers should research before they buy, read reviews and look up the company on BBB.org before purchasing. BBB also has a shopper's guide to help you purchase that niche advent calendar.
11. Top holiday wish list items. Low-priced luxury goods, jewelry, designer clothing and electronics are almost always cheap counterfeits and knockoffs. The same applies to popular toys. This year, Barbie and Ken, Bitzee and Paw Patrol headphones are some of the items in high demand. Be extremely cautious when considering purchasing popular toys from resellers on Facebook Marketplace and other platforms.
12. Puppy scams. Many families may be considering adding a furry friend to their household this year. Be on the lookout for scams. Many would-be pet owners turn to the internet to find their future cat or dog, but experts say a shocking 80% of sponsored pet advertisements are likely fake. Be sure to see the pet in person before making a purchase and carefully check breeders out with BBB, as well as Petscams.com. Many fake pet breeder websites contain photos that have been copied from reputable sites.
If you've spotted an online scam, please report it to BBB ScamTracker.
BBB's Festive Forest is now open
To complement EPB's 40-year tradition in offering their joyful holiday windows, BBB is partnering with EPB and the city of Chattanooga to bring our community the Festive Forest in Miller Park. Come out to enjoy 50 beautiful Frazier firs that have been sponsored and creatively decorated by local, trustworthy businesses and organizations.
BBB has also designated trees for the community to bring ornaments to hang and display in memory of loved ones. The event is free and runs through New Year's Day.
Michele Mason is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.