15 Sneaky Holiday Shopping Scams That Are Easy to Fall For

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Avoid getting ripped off this holiday season by avoiding these clever seasonal scams.
Updated Feb. 21, 2024
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Preparing for the holiday season is equal parts exciting and stressful. On top of searching for the perfect gifts, decorations, travel arrangements, or whatever else the season brings, you need to protect your wallet from scammers.

The holiday season is a lucrative time for scammers and identity thefts, with as many as 24% of people surveyed in 2020 reporting they were the victim of a scam during this time of year. 

Approach seasonal shopping with a skeptical eye, and keep an eye out for these scams in particular.

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Non-delivery scams

insta_photos/Adobe woman packing customer parcels before shipping

While there are plenty of specific scams to protect yourself from, one of the more general ones is a non-delivery scam. This involves paying for something, be it a gift, collectible, service, and so on, and never receiving it. 

Some places may even send out false tracking emails or notifications to give you a sense of security.

These scams occur in a variety of sneaky ways, but it pays to be aware of the source of the fraudulence. Always exercise extreme caution when purchasing things online.

Non-payment scams

Gorodenkoff/Adobe male freelancer using laptop at home

On the other side of the problem, be careful about selling things this holiday season. Many people will sell items to make some extra cash during the holiday season, and scammers are all too savvy when it comes to making sure you never see that money.

While payment apps like Venmo or Zelle are convenient, there are several ways to delay or cancel payments. If you’re selling something this holiday season, aim to only accept cash or credit cards.

Phishing

chinnarach/Adobe woman talking to bank call centre

If you’ve ever purchased something from an online retailer, odds are you receive promotional emails or text messages regularly. This provides a great opportunity for scammers to slide in and steal your information.

While phishing is a regular issue, it’s easy to fall for during the holiday season — especially when legitimate retailers are advertising their holiday sales and discounts. Never click on a link you haven’t vetted, even if it looks safe. Advanced scammers will even modify their URLs to look more authentic.

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Fraudulent charities

Halfpoint/Adobe happy volunteers preparing donation boxes

Many people feel inclined to give during the holidays, but scammers will prey on people’s goodwill whenever possible. It can be hard to discern what’s real and what’s not, but there are some giveaways.

For one, avoid giving money to people who cold call or repeatedly message you, to the point of borderline harassment. If they sound legitimate, do research before giving them any of your information. If you’re feeling generous, go straight to a charity’s website to play it safe.

Porch pirates

yamasan/Adobe delivery boy placing parcels outside door

While some scams are advanced and hard to spot, others are much more obvious, but nonetheless sinister. Porch pirates, or people who snag packages from your doorstep, are a major issue year-round and during the holiday season alike.

Most porch pirates aren’t creating elaborate plots to steal your packages, instead taking them when they see them. However, during the holiday season, it’s assumed there will be significantly more deliveries, giving them more opportunities. Consider getting a porch camera, or a padlocked bag or box for delivery drivers to hide your packages in.

Gift card scams

shintartanya/Adobe christmas online shopping on laptop

Gift cards are an easy, never-fail gift option, and can take some of the pressure off of you when buying gifts for multiple people. However, there are a few scams to be wary of.

One, be sure that the card you buy has not been tampered with. Some scammers will write down the card’s information, wait until you put money on it, and then spend it all before you can. Also, only buy new gift cards — never purchase a “partially used” or resold card.

Travel tricks

Nuttapong punna/Adobe frustrated woman holding head on airplane

Whether you’re visiting family or planning a holiday getaway, travel is a major aspect of the holiday season for many. As such, it’s a wonderful opportunity for scammers to do their work.

A common travel scam involves people listing fake rentals, often asking for payment directly as opposed to going through the site or app’s secure channels.

Some rentals may simply offer more than they actually deliver, too, so be sure to only book through trusted, well-vetted, and highly rated renters.

Social media sellers and fake sites

peopleimages.com/Adobe female editor working late on laptop

Many social media apps now have shopping features or tabs that make it easier to purchase your holiday gifts in one convenient location. 

However, be very wary of these sellers, as they could easily be scammers. Some sellers may simply advertise on social media and ask for direct payment for their product, as well.

Unfortunately, many of these sellers are legitimate business owners and get lost in the shuffle of the scammers. A good way to distinguish between them is by looking for a legitimate website in their profile with secure payment channels.

Rare items listed for cheap

brizmaker/Adobe senior man reviewing taxes using laptop

Online marketplaces are a popular place for people to look for holiday gifts, especially items that are in-demand and hard to find, or otherwise rare.

While it’s not uncommon or worrisome to find collectible or rare items on these sites, like Facebook Marketplace or eBay, it is when they’re dirt cheap. 

Be very, very cautious if a deal seems like it’s too good to be true, and only pay in-person and with cash — never pay through Zelle, Venmo, Cash App, etc.

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Online secret Santa/gift swaps

KRINAPHOTO/Adobe sneaky man dressed santa with presents

Gift swap games like Secret Santa or White Elephant are a fun way to liven up the holiday season, but they’re best practiced among known and trusted friend groups or families.

While the idea of an anonymous, online gift swap sounds fun, it’s a recipe for scammers to steal your money and information. They’ll likely try to get your bank and contact information, as well as that of your friends and family.

Alternate payment scams

Prostock-studio/Adobe man disappointed at taxes

Many advanced scams may not ever raise red flags — until it comes to the payment. Scammers aren’t just after your money from one transaction, but your information, access to your bank account, and so on.

As mentioned earlier, apps like Zelle, Paypal, Venmo, and Cash App are not the safest or most protected forms of money exchange.

Your credit or debit card provider will likely be able to spot scammers easier, and can protect you in the case you are ripped off.

Shopping on public Wi-Fi

Nina L/peopleimages.com/Adobe woman shopping online using card

Whether you’re scrolling on your phone in line at the grocery store or online shopping in a café, it’s not uncommon for people to make their holiday purchases online.

However, be very careful when shopping online in public. If you’re connected to a public network on an unprotected device, it’s incredibly easy for hackers to steal your information. 

Either disconnect from Wi-Fi if you’re on a mobile device, use a VPN, or just bookmark it and purchase it later from the safety of your home.

Credit card scammers

insta_photos/Adobe woman shopping using laptop and card

While online credit card thieves are a big issue, so too are in-person scammers. One of the oldest tricks involves people simply watching you use your card and enter your PIN, and memorizing the information.

Even when you’re alone, though, be careful not to let sensitive information be stolen. Scammers will often install cameras on the pay pads of ATMs, gas station pumps, and so on, or otherwise mess with the machine to steal your information. Inspect each machine in advance, and cover the pad when entering your PIN.

Fake family scam

Krakenimages.com/Adobe couple watching tv besides christmas tree

Another common scam that is especially prevalent during the holidays involves people claiming to be a family member in need of financial assistance.

Oftentimes, these requests come through a messenger app, but new developments in AI allow scammers to recreate people’s voices and use them in phone calls.

Whether through text or call, establish a code word before the holiday season so you know when a request is legitimate.

Fake job offers

fizkes/Adobe young woman reviewing bank statement

Since the holidays usually come with heavy expenses, many people may seek out another job to make a little extra cash. Scammers are all too aware of this and eager to take advantage of it. 

However, these jobs often seem too good to be true, with little to no interviewing process and are designed to steal your information and money.

Never give out personal information to someone you don’t know, especially bank information or Social Security numbers. 

If they don’t try to take your information, they may instead ask for you to send them money to purchase equipment, software, etc.

Bottom line

gpointstudio/Adobe shopaholic woman with man holding bags

The holiday season should be spent enjoying time with friends and family, not worrying about getting scammed or having your information stolen.

Keep your bank account in good health by approaching every offer, purchase, or promotion with skepticism, and never give out any personal information to someone you don’t know or through unprotected channels.

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Author Details

Lucy Clark Lucy Clark has considerable experience writing about real estate, as well as homes and gardens, home value, and more. She is savvy and resourceful, and she aims to ensure others can be, as well.

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