December 29, 2023

The holiday season has snuck up on us once again, and this year’s holiday shopping has its own set of obstacles already. Unless you have been strictly avoiding any news or media outlet, you’ve probably heard about the “supply chain issues” facing basically every industry. Consumer reporters have been warning buyers to purchase early and not to wait if they see an item that they want. Additionally, shipping times have already taken a hit, and it’s not even December. 

The issues that we’re seeing this year pose their own (potential) threats, creating opportunities for new scams and dangers to brew. Below are both scams to be aware of and tips to protect yourself and your personal information while shopping. 

1. Verify the legitimacy of an online retailer before you make a purchase.

While it is wonderful to have a large variety of small businesses to support this holiday season, it can be difficult to determine their legitimacy if you have never heard of them. There are a few easy ways to verify the authenticity of an online retailer before purchasing. First, search the retailer’s name in a search engine plus the word “reviews.” This will usually bring up both personal reviews from consumers who have posted online (usually on their blogs) and websites like Trustpilot, if the company is big enough. You could also look them up on social media. Legitimate businesses will usually have social media accounts you can inspect to see if anything feels fishy. Lastly, you can check their contact information. Even small businesses should have contact information listed on their websites, including addresses and emails. If something doesn’t add up, move on to another retailer.

2. Be aware of potential scams centered around shipping.

With shipping being a particularly hot topic this holiday season, scammers have taken advantage. Proceed with caution when you receive any emails about an issue with your shipping. Common scams this season include emails claiming that your shipment is being “held” with the carrier and you must pay extra to release it and fraudulent shipment tracking emails. When you are evaluating a shipping email for legitimacy, check to make sure that the merchant’s name is included in the email (if it came from a shipping carrier, such as UPS). Do not click through the email to track your package. Either go to the retailer’s website to check on your order status or copy and paste the tracking number into the shipping carrier’s website.

Additionally, be wary of any retailer advertising extremely fast shipping on the cheap. While some companies may run sales that include something like “free two-day shipping,” it is very unlikely that a reputable company will be advertising uncharacteristically fast shipping that does not cost extra, like upgrading to “Next Day Shipping” would, for example.

3. Find out if your local police department has “Safe Exchange Zones” for completing online purchases or exchanges. 

Many police departments around the country have what they call “Safe Exchange Zones” outside their stations where locals can meet up to complete a sale or exchange. These spots are equipped with extra lighting and cameras for your safety. This way you can feel comfortable making a purchase online, such as in Facebook Marketplace, where you have to meet with someone to make the exchange. This also allows you to avoid giving away any personal information, such as your home address. If the seller doesn’t agree to meet at one of these “Safe Exchange Zones,” don’t buy from them. 

4. Avoid using debit cards online when possible. Keep an eye on your credit card and bank account statements to catch any fraudulent use as early as possible.

If you are able to, always use your credit card when making purchases online. Credit cards are typically much easier to deal with when you have a fraudulent charge or another issue with a retailer. It is much safer to protect your money and your personal information when using your credit card versus your debit card. Also, regularly check your accounts to watch out for any suspicious activity.  

5. If something is priced too low, it’s likely a scam or a subpar item.

This is particularly true for toys this year, and this can become dangerous for the child who receives the toy. These knock-off toys often have cheap pieces that can fall off and become a choking hazard for children. Additionally, they may be made with materials containing unknown chemicals.

6. Question a retailer that has a countdown clock to complete your purchase.

We’re not talking about the type of countdown you see when StubHub is holding your concert tickets for 10 minutes until you complete your checkout. If an online retailer has a countdown clock, claiming that you will no longer be able to purchase this “amazing deal” when the countdown ends, do not buy anything from them. Valid retailers will tell you that they will hold your item in your cart for a certain period of time or let you know that there are only two items left in stock, for example. They will not have a giant countdown running across the header of their website pressuring you to purchase.

Follow the tips that you’ve always heard–don’t click links or follow QR codes, don’t wire money as payment, check the website URL for a secure connection–and you will be safe this holiday season. Always err on the side of caution. If something feels off, there’s most likely another legitimate retailer that you can complete your purchase through. While there may be more of a time crunch to receive items this year, don’t rush so much that you ignore your instincts or miss a warning sign. Nobody needs the stress of dealing with a stolen credit card or, worse, stolen identity. There’s enough good stress to go around during the holidays, but let’s keep it at that. 

For more tips and tricks on maintaining cyber security year-round, download our Cyber Security Checklist.