The holidays are high season for scam artists. That’s because consumers like you are at your most vulnerable when you’re seeking gifts for your loved ones. (It’s the most wonderful time of the year, isn’t it?)
There are two kinds of scams, as I identify in my new book Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals:
- “Lowercase” scams, which are obvious rip-offs, like giving money to a nonexistent charity.
- “Uppercase” scams, which are perpetuated by real businesses with a product. But, they attempt to defraud you by doing things like mislabeling a product as being “on sale” when, in fact, it’s been marked up.
Make no mistake, it’s open season on shoppers, and both kinds of scams are all around you. One recent survey estimated that the average American household spends $1,700 on holiday shopping. Some businesses earn a bulk of their revenue between Black Monday and New Year’s Day, while others spring up around that time (only to disappear afterwards).
Everyone – including the scam artists – are out in full force. Here are three common lowercase scams to look for. Next week, I’ll take a look at the uppercase scams.
Bogus Bell Ringers (and other Holiday Come-Ons)
While a vast majority of the bell ringers that stand in front of the department store are legit, it’s still worth paying attention to them. Are they with the Salvation Army, which sponsors the Red Kettle Christmas Campaign – i.e.- the real deal? If not, you might want to take your money elsewhere, or just make your donation online. In one story that made the rounds a few years ago, thieves stole several bell-ringer jackets and officials feared they could pose as bogus bell-ringers. Be aware before making a donation. Just because some guy is dressed in a Santa suit doesn’t make him authentic.
The Gas Can Scam
This is a favorite confidence scam during the holidays, because it’s relatively easy to pull off in the parking lot of a busy mall. Here’s how it works: The scammer approaches you with a gas can and a tall tale about having run out of fuel. He’s desperate to get home to his family. Could you “lend” him just a few dollars? I’ve personally been approach by one of these scam artists during the holidays, a time when a lot of folks are feeling charitable. You’re better off phoning mall security, which is in a far better position to help a stranded motorist – and much less likely to fall for a fraud.
Christmas is a time for online shenanigans, according to George Delta and Jeffrey Matsuura’s book, Law of the Internet. The level of fraud encountered by U.S. online retailers is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars each season, they note. In one cybercrime enforcement sweep, federal authorities charged approximately 135 people with various forms of Internet fraud, affecting 89,000 victims and inflicting about $176 million in damage. A few years ago in England, more than 1,200 sites were shut down during the holidays offering everything from designer goods to counterfeit jewelry. How to avoid them? Buy from someone you know and trust, and always, always pay with a credit card.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the perilous “lowercase” scams that lurk while you do your holiday shopping. But these are likely to affect consumers like you the most.
Give to a reputable charity, patronize businesses you trust and don’t believe everything a stranger tells you. I guarantee your holidays will be a lot happier if you do.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.