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Keep your holiday shopping merry by warding off fraudsters

Nov 15, 2023 | RBC Wealth Management


With so many transactions taking place, the holiday season is prime time for criminals.

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The holidays are one of the busiest shopping periods of the year, and for a good reason: ’tis the season for consumers to take advantage of steep discounts from some of their favorite retailers. Unfortunately, as bargain hunters are out looking for deals, fraudsters are hard at work trying to scam unsuspecting consumers and steal their personal data and information.

Impersonator scams are the most-reported scam to the Federal Trade Commission, with losses of $2.6 billion reported in 2022. These include scams impersonating people and businesses in emails, texts and fake websites. Online shopping-specific scams came in second place with over 364,000 reports of fraud in 2022. “Anyone can become a victim,” says Tara Ambrose, senior manager of Client Risk Prevention at RBC Wealth Management–U.S. “It’s no longer a matter of if you will be the target of fraud or a scam; it’s when and how.”

Here are some tips to help protect your information while shopping online and in person this holiday season:

Use your cards wisely

Credit and debit cards are considered by many to be more convenient than cash. In fact, some retailers today prefer plastic or mobile payments over bills and coins. But consumers need to be cautious when carrying and using cards.

If you’re using cards while out shopping, only carry the ones you need and leave the others at home. This way, if your wallet is lost or stolen, you’ve limited the amount of exposure.

Protecting your personal identification number, or PIN, is the most common piece of advice for consumers using debit and credit cards. Experts recommend consumers shield the keypad when entering their PIN numbers. Also, never reveal your PIN to others.

Contactless payments can be convenient, and they don’t require a PIN; however, these cards aren’t immune to electronic attacks. Criminals may use specialized card readers to steal contactless card details from peoples’ wallets by standing close to them. Be aware of your surroundings and protect cards by putting them in a metal card holder.

Be aware of common online-shopping scams

Many people prefer to shop online rather than in-person these days, which comes with its own set of fraud risks. Remember to be diligent about sharing personal information online, and pay close attention to the websites you’re using so you don’t fall for these common online shopping scams:

Fake websites

These websites are created by criminals to look official in order to steal personal information. Some of these fake sites promote unusually good deals, and others impersonate well-known stores and even banks. Imposter sites can be off by just one character in the web address and can look identical to a company’s legitimate site.

While it’s not uncommon for consumers to receive emails or texts advertising online deals around the holidays, be sure to verify that the sender is actually who they say they are. One way to confirm is to type the company’s web address into your browser instead of following a link. If a deal seems too good to be true, it may be fraud. Buy from companies and sites you know and trust.

Fake order scam

You may receive a text or email that says an order has been placed, even though you know you didn’t shop at that retailer or buy that item. This is a common tactic scammers use to trick unsuspecting consumers into clicking fraudulent links or calling and engaging with the scammers. They try to get you to provide personal information, compromise your username and password, or install malware on your device. If you get an order confirmation that you don’t recognize, check your credit card and the company website manually rather than calling or clicking the information in the text or email.

Tracking number trap

“Your order is being delivered today, here is your tracking number!” This is another tactic used to try to get you to click and compromise your device, your personal information or to pay a fee for delivery. Don’t click or call using the information in the text or email; instead go to the delivery company website manually and verify the tracking number.

Charity scam

Scammers take advantage of consumers’ holiday generosity and impersonate legitimate charities. Check website addresses carefully, and don’t click on any links or call the phone number provided in an email. Instead, look it up yourself and pay by credit card.

Keeping your data safe online

Check websites carefully any time you shop online. Make sure sites are encrypted as well, which means they have extra security measures in place to protect your information. Look for an “s” in the “https://” section of the web address, which stands for secure. A padlock icon in your browser window also indicates the site is encrypted.

You should also regularly update your computer’s operating system. The latest versions usually have better security features that will increase the computer’s ability to combat potential cybercriminal activity.

Be cautious when using free public Wi-Fi for online shopping, or transmitting any personal data for that matter. Cybercriminals often prey on consumers by using these shared connections to steal information such as credit card details, emails, addresses and other personal data. As a result, it may be safer to enter credit card information or log into online banking sites later, using a network you know and trust.

Finally, if an online deal seems too good to be true, it might be. For instance, if a site is asking for too much personal information or has an unclear privacy policy, it may not be legitimate. Or, if the product is a lot cheaper than on other websites—even for holiday sales—there’s a risk it may not be as advertised.

Be proactive and reactive this holiday shopping season

Even the savviest consumers can be at risk of cyberfraud. Ambrose recommends that people regularly review their bank account statements online and when they come in the mail to ensure that all transactions are authorized.

Missing transactions can be just as much of an indicator of fraud as fraudulent ones, she says. Ambrose also recommends that consumers report any missing or fraudulent transactions as soon as possible.

“Don’t just focus on the large transactions,” Ambrose warns. Some cybercriminals will test the water with smaller transactions. If they go unnoticed, they ramp up to higher-priced items.

Consumers can sign up for email or text alerts through their bank, which tell them when there’s activity in their accounts, such as credit card purchases or debit transactions. Consumers who suspect fraud should contact their credit card company immediately.

For extra protection, Ambrose notes that consumers may also want to enroll in multi-factor authentication for all financial accounts and keep their passwords unique.

“Cybercriminals are constantly looking for access to other peoples’ information, especially around the holidays,” she says. “As scammers become more sophisticated, it’s imperative that individuals be more aware and vigilant.”

Learn more about things you can do today to help protect yourself online.


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