Crime Beat | Dec. 10-17

Tis the season to be wary. The FBI is warning of online holiday scams this season.

credit cards
Image: Avery Evans

Tis the season to be jolly, as the song goes. But for burglars, shoplifters, con artists and other criminals, it’s open season – on you.

December is a peak month for crime. Criminals love the holiday season, but not for any spiritual or sentimental reason. It is simply a time of grand opportunity. I wonder how the COVID-19 lockdown will affect that. One change I suspect will be an increase in online scams, as more people will be shopping online rather than physically shopping at stores.

The FBI warns shoppers shopping online to be on the lookout for scams.

“Scammers don’t take holidays off from swindling unsuspecting shoppers,” said Steven M. D’Antuono, assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington Field Office. 

“There are a variety of ways that fraudsters try to scam you during the holiday season, including through online shopping scams. 

“As more people shop online this year, the FBI is asking the public to know the telltale signs of these scams and protect yourself and your financial information. The simplest tips can save you a lot of money: Verify the legitimacy of websites before providing financial or personal information; if the deal from an unknown seller looks too good to be true it just may be a scam, so do your due diligence; and do not click on email or text message links from unknown senders.” 

“As more people shop online this year, the FBI is asking the public to know the telltale signs of these scams and protect yourself and your financial information.”  – Steven M. D’Antuono

According to the FBI, scammers often offer too-good-to-be-true deals through “phishing” emails or advertisements. These schemes offer brand-name merchandise at extremely low prices or offer gift cards as an incentive. Some sites offer products at a great price, but the products being sold are not the same as the products advertised.

The FBI also warns shoppers to avoid untrustworthy sites or ads offering items at unrealistic discounts or with special coupons. Victims end up paying for the item as well as giving away personal information and credit card details.

Shoppers should beware of posts on social media sites that appear to offer vouchers or gift cards. These offers come on as holiday promotions or contests. Others appear to be from known friends who shared the link. These scams lead shoppers to participate in an online survey that is designed to steal your personal information.

The FBI further warns shoppers to beware of sites and posts offering work they can do from home. These so-called opportunities rely on convenience, and, during the COVID-19 lockdown, may seem a welcomed income, but they may be frauds. One should carefully research the job posting and individuals or companies offering employment. 

During the holiday season, shoppers should be careful if someone asks them to purchase gift cards for them. In these scams, the FBI tells us, victims receive either a spoofed email, a spoofed phone call, or a spoofed text from a person in authority requesting the victim to purchase multiple gift cards for either personal or business reasons.

As an example, a victim receives a request to purchase gift cards for a work-related function or as a present for a special occasion. The gift cards are then used to facilitate the purchase of goods and services, which may or may not be legitimate. Some of these incidents are combined with additional requests for wire transfer payments.

One should also watch out for fraudulent charity scams. These scams are set up to promote false charities and they profit from good-hearted people who believe they are making donations to legitimate charitable organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Charity fraud typically rises during the holiday season, when people seek to make end-of-year tax deductible gifts or they want to help those less fortunate. Seasonal charity scams can pose greater difficulties in monitoring because of their widespread reach, limited duration, and – when done over the internet – minimal oversight.

“According to the FBI, scammers often offer too-good-to-be-true deals through “phishing” emails or advertisements.”

If you believe you have been the victim of a scam, call the FBI at 215-418-4000, or file a complaint online at www.ic3.gov.

The Federal Trade Commission, whose mission is to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices and provides information to help spot and avoid them, also offers some tips for holiday online shoppers. 

Type a company or product into your search engine with terms such as “review,” “complaint,” or “scam” to find out more about the company or product. 

Read reviews from other shoppers, experts, and columnists can give one an idea of how a product performs. But, the FTC advises, don’t put all of your trust in one review. 

Consider a brand’s reputation for quality and good customer service. The FTC also recommends that shoppers use a credit card, as they can offer extra protection. 

Also look for a secure checkout. See if the website starts with “https” (the “S” stands for secure) when checking out. The FTC also recommends that shoppers keep records such as emails and online receipts. 

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week. He is a Philadelphia writer who has written extensively about organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white-collar crime, crime fiction, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. 

  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has been on the scene shortly after a number of murders were committed, from robbery-related murders to juvenile gang killings, to mob hits in South Philly. He’s interviewed homicide detectives at the Roundhouse and observed homicide detectives as they investigated […]