Scammers are shopping too, and the bad guys are stepping up their game, taking advantage of consumers through traditional rip-off methods -- and some new schemes too.
"Most of these scams we see all year, but they become much more prominent this time of year because of all the holiday hustle and bustle," said Robert Siciliano, a security expert for McAfee, the online security technology firm. In the flurry of store-hopping and cyber shopping, we tend to forget stuff, like credit cards and packages at cash registers. We leave exposed gifts in the front seat of a car and purchase products on websites we've never visited (or worse yet, have never heard of).
The fraudsters are out there, ready to pounce on the vulnerability -- due to the overall exhaustion and anxiety -- that the happy holidays can bring on. Keep your guard up and consider this your scam alert tip sheet:
Gift-card scam: The Better Business Bureau says this one is "back with a vengeance" this year. You can be duped in at least two ways: through an email, text message or social-media post announcing you a winner of a popular retail gift card. When you follow the included link -- and you never should -- you're directed to a site that is a remarkable clone of the real thing. But when you give up personal information like your email, birth date and favorite color, you're directed off the bogus site to a credit-card application, and the fraudster has what he wants -- your information. You can also get hoodwinked by buying bogus card online from third parties. "Your best option is to buy right from the cashier behind the counter," Siciliano said. Even then, make sure the PIN code on the back hasn't been scratched off, an indication that it's been hacked by someone in the store.
Package-delivery scam: This one comes via email, seemingly from a legitimate delivery company, complete with a phony tracking number and a note about a delivery error. There's an attachment with a supposed delivery label that you're told to take to the nearest delivery office to get the package. Open it, and you'll be subjecting your computer -- or smartphone -- to malware and virus attacks, the BBB warns.
E-cards: In a sign of the times, that seemingly innocuous electronic thank-you note or holiday greeting could be spyware or viruses that automatically download when opened or when they direct you to download to see the card. "I never open e-cards any longer," Siciliano said. "I tell whoever's sending them to send me a paper card, which I prefer anyway."
Best-deal-ever scams: Who doesn't shop for discounts during the holidays, when cash is disappearing at an alarming rate? But don't get conned by online-shopping swindles that purport to offer bargain-basement prices that are, well, too good to be true -- because they are lies. The BBB hears from hundreds of holiday shoppers that they found a great "deal" online that really wasn't because they got nothing in return. That scam gets rampant when hot toys or gadgets are sold out or quantities are limited. Beware, too, of hard-to-find toys and gadgets for sale at higher prices on online auction sites. You may not see anything from those sellers either.
Social-media mayhem: These still qualify as new, but with the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and social media accounts, they're gaining popularity. McAfee sees them as good places to catch you off guard "because we're all 'friends,' " the company said in its list of online scams this year. The criminals use social media sites just as they would emails with offers of raffles, fan-page deals and discounts that really are bait to infect your systems or lure more personal information out of you. Remember too that these so-called concessions can come from real friends whose accounts were hacked. Always look closely at the URLs before clicking on them, or better yet, go directly to the retailer or manufacturer's site yourself.
Malicious mobile applications: When you consider that consumers have already downloaded more than 25 billion applications on Android phones alone, it's no wonder that fraudsters consider that fertile ground. And there's a boatload of shopping and discount apps popping up for the holidays. FortiGuard, a security research company, charted an 8,500 percent spike in Android malware from 2010 to 2011. But don't just be wary of potential malice in Android apps; they're popping up in other app stores too. (In an effort to clamp down, Google (GOOG) earlier this year introduced a new feature, Bouncer, to scan apps for malware. The company also recommends downloading apps from its store, rather than third parties.)
Bogus charitable pleas: We tend to be bigger givers to those in need during the holidays, and scammers do their best to get on those lists too. Beware of emails, phone calls and text messages, even from those you may know. Resist demands for on-the-spot donations, research every charity before giving to ensure legitimacy, never make cash contributions and always ask for a receipt.
Identity theft at the mall: The stores were crowded, the lines were long, you had lots of packages, and somehow you lost sight of your wallet or credit cards. You're an easy target for pickpockets and garden-variety thieves looking for a way to grab your access to money and everything else of value you're carrying. Keep close tabs on your cards and wallets, pay attention to who's around you, and cover the keypad with your hand when punching in PINs at the cashier or an ATM.