Keep scammers from stealing your Christmas during 12 Days of Scams

BBB Consumer Alerts

As the holiday season approaches, there are several scams our partners at the Better Business Bureau say you need to know about.

Holiday Pop-up Shops:

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These temporary locations pop up in malls as landlords try to fill vacant space during the Christmas season. While they're fun and have quick gifts, there are a few tips to stay safe as you shop:

  • Research the store headquarters - ask for an address and phone number; check the business profile on
  • Ask how long the store will be open - In case you need to return an item, make sure the store will be open and accepting returns after the holiday season.
  • Review purchase policies - Make sure the store has concrete commitments on return and refund policies.
  • Shop around - Some pop-up shops are simply mini versions of traditional discount retailers.
  • Pay attention to quality - If a pop-up shop offers items with steep discounts compared to standard retailers, it may be a sign their merchandise is low quality, stolen, or counterfeit.
  • Read the manufacturer's warranty (if there is one) - Ask how you will be able to get the product serviced if necessary.
  • Guard your personal information - With small items, you can pay in cash, but you won't have any recourse if something isn't right. With larger items, using a credit card is a better bet. Make sure you hold on to your receipt and credit card statements.
  • If the gift is for somebody who is hard to please - you might want to buy from a more established retailer. Make sure to ask for a gift receipt.

Gift Card Scams:

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Gift cards are easy and quick for those last-minute gift shoppers, and scammers know it. They're just as eager to use the cards before the intended recipient.

  • Look closely - Scammers are known to open gift cards, record the card numbers and PIN, and then return the card to the shelf. Check the packaging for wrinkles, tears, or other indications of tampering, such as an exposed PIN. If it's suspicious, grab a different card and take the compromised card to customer service.
  • Check policies - Some stores have different policies on using gift cards (online only, in-store only, limited locations).
  • Register the gift card - Registering helps protect the balance and can help you get the balance on the card back if it's stolen or compromised.
  • Treat the card like cash - it is! If a gift card is lost or stolen, report it to your issuer or store immediately. You can usually find the number for reporting a stolen card online or on the card.

Holiday Job Scams:

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As the holiday season approaches, retailers and shipping companies bring on seasonal help to keep up with demand. However, with many job searches being online, scammers can easily mimic a site and offer jobs that seem too good to be true.

  • Employers will never ask for money upfront - Some scams may ask applicants to pay for supplies, an application or a training fee. This is a red flag that something isn't right.
  • Beware of job offers that don't require an interview - Even in peak season, reputable companies will always do either a phone interview or an in-person interview. If a company gives you an offer without an interview, do a little more digging.
  • Beware of big money for small jobs - If you have to do minimal work for big pay, such as reshipping packages, stuffing envelopes, or answering phones, that's a red flag. These applications are an attempt to steal personal information.
  • Never do any work before you get hired - Real companies won't ask applicants to do complex projects before they're officially hired. Before you start, request a confirmation in writing of what the job entails and compensation.

"Secret Sister" and Wine Gift Exchange

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The "Secret Sister" scam began in 2015 through Facebook posts promising 36 gifts after sending one. This scam tends to pop back up every season and one newer version revolves around a wine exchange.

Either way, both of these posts are not only pyramid schemes, but illegal.

  • Prohibited by Federal Law - The U.S. Postal Inspection Service says this is a form of gambling and those participating could be subject to fines, jail time, or even a lawsuit for mail fraud.
  • Prohibited by Alabama Law - It's illegal to ship alcohol through the mail under Alabama law and many other states.

If you run across these kinds of posts, there are some things you can do:

  • Ignore it - Chain letters involving money or valuable items and promising big returns are illegal.
  • Report social media posts - On top of reporting these posts on social, gently let the person know they're breaking the law.
  • Never give your personal information to strangers - This could lead to identity theft.
  • Be wary of false claims - Some scams will claim they're endorsed by the government. No matter what they claim, the government will never endorse illegal activity and you'll get little to no money back on an "investment."

Holiday Returns:

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Surprisingly, stores are not obligated to accept exchanges or give refunds unless the merchandise is defective or misrepresented. Policies vary from store to store as well. To make sure your returns are smooth, follow these tips:

  • Learn store policies - Before buying anything, find out if the store has a return policy and how it works. Those policies could change during the holiday season and some stores require you to pay a restocking fee. If you're shopping online, search for the policy and read it thoroughly before buying anything. You could be responsible for paying return shipping if you don't return an item to a brick-and-mortar store.
  • Read your warranty - Most electronics and home appliances come with manufacturer's warranties that are fulfilled with the manufacturer as opposed to a store. In some cases, the manufacturer will ship parts to the retailer. In others, you'll work with the manufacturer directly.
  • Keep your receipt and any packaging - Most stores only take returns with a receipt and original packaging. If you give anything as a gift, include a gift receipt, and make sure to keep any gift receipts you give.
  • Bring your ID - Many stores will ask to see your ID and form of payment during the holiday return season to avoid scams.
  • Make returns in a timely fashion - Don't wait until several months later to return an item. Some stores actually modify their return periods during the holidays, so don't delay your return.

Hot Holiday Toy Scams:

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Every year, there are toys that top kids' wish lists and this year is no exception. Toys from ZoGalaxy's Star Wars line, Funko's Pop! figures, Hatchimals, and Magformers are topping lists this year, and scammers are taking advantage of this popularity to trick parents.

These toys sell out quick and scammers get savvy, creating websites that magically have the toy in stock, some with last-minute deals or flash sales.

However, when you return to ask the company for an update after paying for the item and never receiving it, the website is gone or lacks working contact information.

To avoid these scams, follow these tips:

  • Only buy toys from reputable stores and sites - The best way to avoid getting scammed in the first place is to buy from a site you know and trust.
  • Extra-low prices are a red flag - Avoid making a purchase from an unfamiliar retailer or site just because the price seems too good to be true - it often is
  • Research before buying - Before offering up your name, address, and credit card information, make sure the website has a working customer service number and research the company in more detail.

Social Media Ad Scams:

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As scammers get savvier, even ads on social media have become a place for scammers to take your money. Our partners at the BBB say there are several types of scams.

  • Giving back to charity - A small business is advertising on Facebook for jewelry, t-shirts, or other merchandise that appeals to you. Even better, some of the proceeds will go to a charity helping animals, foster kids, or another worthy cause. In some cases, victims have received a direct message from a seller promoting the products. In all cases, once you buy an item, you never receive it and any attempts to reach the seller are unsuccessful.
  • Free trial offers - Many false ads say they're endorsed by celebrities and promise a trial of a skincare product or nutritional supplement. All you have to do is pay shipping. What really happens is consumers agree to multiple monthly shipments of products, costing over $70-$100 each time. Before signing up, research the company online, read the terms and conditions for these offers (if you can't find any, it's a red flag), make sure there aren't any pre-selected checkboxes and make sure you know who and where the company is.
  • Counterfeit Merchandise - Name-brand goods pop up all the time in social media ads, but be careful: The product could be poor quality and may not even meet environmental and safety regulations. Some red flags include significantly lower prices compared to other retailers, spelling/grammatical errors, and poor quality images. These are signs the product could be counterfeit.
  • Poor customer service - Many complaints to the BBB fall in this category and for products such as beauty products, trendy clothing, or kids' toys. Usually, these ads look great and have inexpensive products, so consumers purchase without doing any research on the company. Weeks pass with no products, and consumers reach out to customer service. However, they receive a vague answer or don't even hear back at all. Before buying, Google the website name with the words "complaints," "reviews," or "scam" to see what other customers are saying. If you're on a questionable website, check the "About Us" or "Contact Us" tab for actual contact details. If the website only offers a form to contact the business, it's a red flag.
  • Random apps - Some ads in your feed are for the newest "free" app. Beware, doing that opens your device to unknown entities and you could possibly be signing up for expensive recurring subscription fees. Some victims report being charged as much as $99 every seven days. Before entering your username and password to download the app, read the reviews and carefully check the description of the app. Be on the lookout for spelling and grammatical errors. Also check the developer's website is valid and read the terms and conditions carefully.

Smart, Internet-Connected Toys

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Many toys once filled with stuffing are now filled with smart technology. While internet-connected toys can be fun, they can put you and your family at risk if proper care isn't taken when buying and using the devices. Some devices collect personal information, such as name and email address, from children. Sometimes, this happens without the parents even knowing. Like the offline world, parents have to give permission before data is collected on their children.

Smart toys aren't inherently bad; it's just about being smart and making wise, informed choices.

  • Do your Research - Before hitting the stores to buy a smart toy, research the product; search the web and read online reviews.
  • Know the Law - Under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), toy companies must post privacy policies describing how personal information is collected and used. It should also include how third parties use the data.
  • Read the Privacy Policy - There are several things you should look for: A list of who is collecting personal information, what information the device collects and how it's used, how personal information is stored, who has access to data, and your parental rights. If you can't find a policy, contact the company directly. If you aren't satisfied with the answer or don't get one, consider purchasing another toy.
  • Parental Rights - Under COPPA, parents must have the chance to review their child's information, delete it and give them a chance to refuse to allow further collection. Parents can also allow collection, but disallow sharing with third parties. Upon asking, companies must give parents a way to review, stop collection, and delete data. Parents must also be notified and companies must have verifiable consent before collecting data.
  • Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst - Educate your children about safeguarding personal information and potential dangers online. Encourage them to speak up if something questionable happens.
  • Use a Secure Connection - Only connect smart toys and devices to secure, password-protected networks or VPNs. Don't use public or unprotected networks; this could lead to unwanted access if the toy has any security flaws.
  • Check Please - Some privacy settings aren't set by default; be sure to physically check the settings and set a password on them. Be aware of parental controls and safety features that can limit who your child can communicate with.
  • Stay Up to Date - Find out if the company will contact you in the event of a security breach or if software updates are issued to protect the toy's security. If there are updates, install them in a timely manner.
  • Monitor - Have your children use toys in family areas of the home. Review any video or audio recorded by toys and be engaged; be aware of who they are talking to and what they are sharing.
  • Major Turnoff - Turn off devices when not in use to ensure personal information isn't collected.
  • Take Back the Internet - If you're not sure how to do something, chances are another parent does and probably has a YouTube video on it! Multiple questions such as "How to turn off iPhone purchases" and "How to set parental controls" can be answered with a quick search - even questions you didn't think to ask.
  • We're Not Made of Money - Talk to your child about online spending. If you allow them to make online purchases, educate them on being responsible. You may want to use prepaid cards to avoid overspending.
  • Pull the Plug - Teach kids that addictive buzzing and pinging doesn't take the place of family time or socializing in real life. Keep encouraging both. Add or subtract time as a reward or punishment. If you're worried about kids' online interactions, use built-in features to turn off internet access on the device, disable digital purchases, and restrict interactions to pre-approved friend lists.

E-Card Scams

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Thousands of people mail cards to loved ones during the holiday season, but some are going high-tech, sending e-cards instead, and scammers are taking advantage of it.

E-cards are becoming one of the most common ways for scammers to get your information.

There are three questions you can ask yourself to determine if an e-card is a scam:

  • Is the sender's name visible?
  • Are you being asked to enter your personal information to open the card?
  • Three, does this email look suspicious?

Robyn Householder is the CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky. She says there's one thing that consumers might not know to look for.

"So when you do get these unsolicited emails or pop-ups, if you see an exe at the end of that information, don't open it. That's a big flag, it's either a phishing scam or potentially downloading dangerous software to your computer."

Fake look-alike websites

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A lot of consumers will see look-alike websites popping up this holiday season.

They usually come in looking like an email alert promoting what seems like a great deal.

Robyn Householder, CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky, says you should steer clear.

"They'll be one subtle thing different in that URL address, so what they are trying to do is really two things. One, take your information which becomes an identity issue and two, take your money and you're standing there with the bag with never receiving anything from them."

These websites also allow scammers to download malware onto your computer.

To protect yourself, consumers should:

  • Review the sender's address
  • Look for any misspellings in the email
  • Hover over a link to see where they route you to.
  • Make sure to only enter sensitive information into a website that begins with https; the 's' lets you know that the site is secure and information entered is encrypted.

Letters to Santa Scam

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Writing a letter to Santa is a tradition for millions of kids across the country, but to unsuspecting parents, it can be much more than that.

It could be a chance for scammers to acquire their personal information.

A lot of legitimate businesses do offer a personalized letter from Santa, but some copycat scammers are only looking for your information.

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Be suspicious of unsolicited emails
  • Look for special prices or packages for the letters from Santa
  • Do your research to verify a company offering a letter.

Robyn Householder, CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky, says some scammers don't stop at the holiday season and try to take advantage of your emotions.

"Listen, the worst situation is when we have a natural disaster. Whether that's a mass shooting or tornado, scammers pop up within minutes setting up bogus charities. It's not about morality, it's about opportunity for them. It's very unfortunate."

Holiday Shipping Scams

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A lot of holiday shoppers do the bulk of their buying online, so they're used to getting shipping notifications sent to their email address.

But now, scammers are banking on that, creating false emails alongside the real ones, just hoping you don't notice.

Once a consumer clicks, a variety of things can go wrong, such as downloading dangerous software to your computer.

Robyn Householder, CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky, says there's one thing you can to do avoid these fake notifications best.

"The best way to check on shipping notifications is to proactively go to that website, and if you are relying on the emails that legitimate companies do send you - verify. Just make sure it's the right email address."

Consumers should always make sure to:

  • Check tracking numbers
  • Read previous emails to make sure before opening
  • Look for "scammer grammar," another term for misspellings in an email

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