Let the holiday shopping frenzy begin! As you ready your wallets and keep refreshing your favorite websites in search of the biggest deals, scammers are also preparing to shop — not for a new laptop or TV, but for new targets. Where there’s a promise of a good deal, there’s often a scammer lurking behind it.
During Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Christmas, cyber scams ramp up. In fact, the period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday sees an astonishing 82% global surge in fraud attempts compared to the rest of the year. In the midst of hunting for that perfect bargain, it’s easy to stumble into a cyber scam’s snare.
We delved into the digital world to find five lesser-known scams you might encounter this season. We’ll also take you backstage for a glimpse into the birth of these scams, helping you recognize and sidestep pitfalls during your shopping sprees. Consider this not just a seasonal heads-up, but a comprehensive guide to keep you scam-savvy all year round.
What Exactly Are Holiday Cyber Scams?
Holiday cyber scams are scams that take place online during festive periods. These time periods are known for their huge discounts and offers, with extra shoppers going online to complete their shopping needs. The aim of holiday cyber scams is the same as any other scam: to steal or corrupt your personal and/or financial information for the criminal’s benefit.
Protecting your digital identity helps you take a step towards making yourself a less viable target for scammers. One of the best ways to do this is by using security tools, like a VPN. VPNs hide details like your IP address and encrypt your data, so your location remains anonymous and hackers can’t see your information. While they can’t detect actual scams, they do make shopping online a little safer.
5 Outrageous Holiday Cyber Scams
Malicious E-Greeting Cards
We’ve all giggled at the sight of elves singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas or turkeys dancing on a plate. E-greeting cards are a fun and entertaining way of sending holiday wishes to those you care about without queuing for hours to send them the mail. However, you might find a scam lurking behind jolly animations.
Criminals love this method because of how easy e-cards are to replicate and distribute. Quick copy and paste of popular designs, and the scam cards are ready to go out via email or text. From there, it’s smooth sailing: you receive a pop-up saying someone sent you an e-greeting card. It appears to come from a legitimate company like Hallmark or 123Greetings. Excited, you click on the link or attachment to view it and, at first, you don’t see anything suspicious. That’s because the malicious magic is happening behind the scenes.
Opening attachments or links can automatically initialize malware downloads directly on your device. Once they have access, scammers can easily monitor your activity, or log your keystrokes. They could even take control of your phone or laptop and demand ransom or turn it into a part of a botnet. Not jolly at all.
Letters from Santa
Nowadays, even Santa can scam you. In recent years, many fake websites posing as charitable organizations have popped up, promising to send your child a handwritten letter from Santa for a small fee. The catch? You never receive it, no matter how long you wait, and the scammers run away with the data you provided at checkout.
It’s not just any data, either. To complete the purchase, you need to input your full name, address, credit card details, and your child’s information, often including their name and age. If scammers sell this kind of data on the Dark Web, it could facilitate far worse crimes such as burglary or even kidnapping. These are very extreme cases, though — most of the time, you’ll be at higher risk of phishing emails or credit card scams.
A “Free” Christmas Hamper
The festive season is a perfect excuse for brands and influencers alike to host online giveaways. They’re a fun way to engage new and existing customers and give them something for free — but not every giveaway you see on the internet is legit.
One example of fake giveaways you’re likely to see pop up around the holidays are Christmas hampers. These usually find their way to you on social media, through emails, or even text messages. Scammers lure you in with promises of wine, chocolates, and other festive delights, all of which you can get for free.
However, to “claim” the offer, you usually have to provide personal information, such as your home address and phone number. This information can then be used for identity theft or future phishing attempts. And that hamper you were promised? It never appears on your doorstep.
Sometimes, it gets even worse. Despite offering “free” hampers, scammers may ask you to provide payment details to cover delivery or processing fees. This is the biggest red flag: it gives cybercriminals a way to make unauthorized transactions from your account, often long after the holidays have passed.
Secret Sister Gift Exchange
The Secret Sister scam is one of the most popular pyramid schemes on social media. It appears like a legitimate gift exchange, which is why it’s so easy to fall for.
The Secret Sister gift exchange typically starts with an invitation, either via a direct message or a post on social media. Participants are told that if they send one gift (often valued at $10), they will receive numerous gifts in return, sometimes as many as 36. New participants add their names to a list, buy one gift, and wait for multiple presents to roll in. Sounds too good to be true? It is.
If you’re good at math, you may have already figured out that it’s impossible for everyone to get 36 gifts. Those early in the game might get some, but as the participant pool grows, those joining later are unlikely to receive anything. You’ll still be expected to spend money for those at the top of the list though, without an option to get a refund if you don’t get any gifts yourself.
The disappointment and money loss aren’t all that’s wrong with the gift exchange. To participate, you have to fill in the required details on a form visible to everyone involved in the scheme. This includes your full name and address, so other participants know where to send the gifts, but it often exposes you to other risks. Should a cybercriminal join the list, they’ll immediately have access to your data, which they can take and use for other scams, identity theft, and more.
Elf Name Generators
One of the main concerns with generators is the potential for phishing and data collection. Sure, an elf name can be generated based on your first name, but some sites also ask for your email address or birthdate. This data can then find its way into the hands of third parties, who might use it for targeted phishing attempts or even sell it.
Beyond data collection, malware distribution is another lurking danger. A seemingly benign click to “find out your elf name” could trigger an automatic download of malicious software. This could then stealthily siphon off your personal data, introduce ransomware, or wreak other types of havoc on your device.
Many elf name generator sites also use trackers and cookies. While some are relatively harmless, aiming only to understand site traffic, others are more invasive. They can monitor your online activities, build a digital profile for targeted advertising, or sell it to data brokers. Worse yet, they often lack privacy policies since they’re run by independent programmers without a lot of legal knowledge.
It’s important to remember that not all elf name generators — or any other fun quizzes — are inherently malicious. However, it’s almost impossible to spot any worrisome signs even if you have years of cybersecurity experience behind you, so always treat them with caution.
Behind the Scenes: How Holiday Cyber Scams Come to Life
1. Research and Planning
Initial preparation is crucial when crafting elaborate holiday scams. Scammers carefully research what you’re more likely to be on the prowl for, identifying the most current trends and products. This increases their chances of creating a more successful campaign as they’ll seem more legitimate to unsuspecting victims.
In addition to current trends, scammers also analyze how well their scams performed in previous years. They use this data to refine their tactics and maximize efficiency. Was it the counterfeit Santa letters that did the trick? Or perhaps those too-good-to-be-true Black Friday discounts? Learning from past triumphs lets them stay ahead of the game.
Since security measures are frequently updated, scammers have to study the most recent software patches and look for any prevalent vulnerabilities. After identifying any chinks in the armor, they look for ways to exploit these gaps, especially during the frantic shopping season when consumers are less vigilant.
Part of effective planning includes searching for an emotional hook that could convince victims to click on a link or attachment and provide their personal details. Scammers might use heartwarming stories of charity, incredible once-in-a-lifetime deals, or fun activities to get your guard down.
2. Creating Authentic Platforms or Communications
Once all the research is done, scammers start putting the campaign together. This is careful work: emails and platforms have to look authentic enough to be indistinguishable from the real thing.
To start with, scammers focus on aesthetics. Since you’re more accustomed to seeing websites with snowflakes or reindeer, cybercriminals tap into these expectations, ensuring their platforms carry similar motifs. They replicate the look and feel of trusted e-commerce sites or charity portals, complete with fake reviews, testimonials, and even security badges.
It’s not just about appearance — the underlying code and structure of scams also have to be convincing. Scammers often source layouts from legitimate websites, tweaking them slightly to suit their plans. This includes mimicking websites’ URLs with domain names that are almost indistinguishable from genuine platforms. Minor misspellings or changes are very common, but they can go unnoticed at a quick glance.
3. Distribution and Amplification
Social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, make a great launchpad for fraudulent offers. Scammers often use fake accounts — or hack into existing ones — to send out messages and malicious links to entire friends lists. Since social media also comes with the option to promote your posts, cybercriminals can use targeted advertising to reach specific vulnerable demographics.
Phishing emails are another easy and persistent way to distribute scams. They often include too-good-to-be-true offers you can’t resist, or warn you about issues with your order or account. As they’re designed to look exactly like messages you’d receive from your favorite brands and retailers, they seem like legitimate and trustworthy emails.
Text messages and messaging apps can help make fake messages feel more personal and urgent. You’re likely to receive SMS messages about exclusive deals, parcel delivery notifications, missed payments, or even texts from family messages asking for help. They may appear benign at first but can carry very malicious intent.
Finally, scammers can create temporary pop-up e-commerce sites, complete with online reviews and testimonials, often expertly crafted search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, which helps the sites appear higher in your search results. These websites mirror popular shopping platforms but offer steep discounts you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
4. Data Collection and Exploitation
Out of all the steps, data collection is the easiest part of running a scam — all the cybercriminals have to do is wait for your details to roll in. Depending on what scam you come across, you might be coaxed into entering your personal information thinking you’re securing the deal of a lifetime, or claiming a huge prize.
The data that’s most likely to be included over the holidays includes:
- Personally identifiable information (PII), such as your full name, birthday, address, and social security number
- Financial data, like bank account numbers and credit card details
- Usernames and passwords
- Social media profiles
With your details in hand, cybercriminals can craft more elaborate frauds in the future, or break into your social media, insurance, or banking accounts. They could make purchases using your cards, wire all your money to an offshore bank account, or collect even more data from your socials. Alternatively, scammers can put your details up for sale on the Dark Web, putting you at the mercy of the highest bidder.
Protect Your Wallet with Easy Cybersecurity Tips
Use Legitimate HTTPS Sites
The best way to avoid festive cyber scams is to shop from websites you know and trust, but it’s not always possible. If you come across a new business or a platform you’ve never used before, make sure it’s secure before you buy anything. Look specifically for the padlock symbol and an https:// code at the start of the URL. This shows you that the connection between you and the website is secure, so no one can spy on what you’re doing.
Don’t Click on Links in Emails/Texts without Verifying
Refrain from opening any attachments or links until you make sure the correspondence came from a trusted source. Double-check the email address for any spelling mistakes or domains you don’t normally see, and compare it to any previous email you’ve received from the same company. If it’s different, mark the message as spam, and don’t look back.
Spammy clues can hide in the body of a message, too. Scammers may start an email with an unusual or informal greeting. You might come across some spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes — but this is less common now since criminals often run their messages through multiple checkers before sending. Phishing emails also have a sense of urgency, pushing you to make a decision or verify your details quickly.
More often than not, you’ll notice obvious inconsistencies between the email address and link URLs. If they don’t look like they lead to the same company or look dodgy and unintelligible, you’re dealing with a phisher.
Create a Festive Email for Online Purchases
It’s no secret that using your email to make even a legitimate purchase creates an influx of spam messages in your inbox. At best, it’s mildly infuriating. However, if you did that on a shady website, you’d risk handing over both your details and a way into your accounts.
Setting up an email specifically for holiday shopping can save you from spam emails and potential data harvest. Since it’s not linked to your primary email address, you won’t have to worry about compromising your main correspondence even if you do fall victim to a cyber scam. All you’ll lose is a disposable inbox that stores almost no information, keeping your privacy intact.
Use Secure Payment Methods
Keep your debit card in your wallet this festive season. PayPal, Google Pay, ApplePay, and credit cards offer much better security when you’re buying gifts for loved ones. They act as a third party, completing the purchase on your behalf. They often come with strong encryption, payment protection, and even biometric verification to prevent fraudulent activity.
Credit cards make it easy to reverse transactions too, which is great if you accidentally fall victim to a cyber scam. You can easily cancel or dispute a transaction, and if you can prove you didn’t receive goods you paid for, you’ll likely receive your money back. This wouldn’t be possible if you used a debit card.
Read Shop and Product Reviews
Reviews can often tell you whether a website you’re on or a product you’re looking to buy is a real deal or not. The easiest way to check is to look for reviews on the actual e-commerce site. Any legitimate company would be proud to display positive feedback from real customers — it could be a red flag if you can’t find any. Some scammers may choose to disable comments, stopping you from checking out other people’s experiences.
An even better option is to use independent review sites like Trustpilot. Customers leave genuine comments about their purchasing experience and product quality. Whether negative or positive, the company it’s about cannot modify or delete any reviews. This makes it easy to spot a scammy site as it’ll have a ton of negative comments warning you against it.
Keep an Eye on Your Bank Account
Even if you don’t think you visited a fraudulent website, it’s a good idea to regularly check your bank statements. Check for any suspicious activity and purchases you don’t recognize, whether that’s from unknown sellers or third parties, like PayPal or Venmo. If you notice anything unusual, pick up the phone and report it to your bank or credit card company to freeze your card and protect your account from further infiltration.
Report Anything Suspicious
Don’t be embarrassed if you get scammed. Instead, get Hulk-level angry and make sure everyone else knows about it. Leave negative reviews, post warnings on all social media platforms, and even report it to the authorities. Do everything you can to stop the scam from spreading — it may not help you too much, but it’ll prevent others from falling into the same trap.
Spread Holiday Cheer with a Side of Vigilance
It’s clear that cyber scams ramp up during the festive season. Crafty and deceptive, they take advantage of your shopping enthusiasm to steal as much of your data as possible. As tempting as it is to jump straight into the world of online discounts, you must remember to take precautionary steps to protect yourself from hidden snares.
As technology continues to evolve, with tools like AI adding layers of sophistication to scams, your best defense remains knowledge. By understanding how these scams come to life, you can not only protect yourself but also teach others. Always stay informed about the latest advancements to keep one step ahead of scammers and enjoy the holiday season with joy and not fear.