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Filip Fröhlich for Money

As the holidays approach, expect an uptick in scamming activity.

Fraudsters are already taking advantage of the pandemic-related uptick in online shopping to steal consumers’ money and personal information through phishing, malware, and straight-up theft.

If you’re not extra careful, you could take a bigger financial hit than you planned this holiday season. Here are some of the most common holiday scams to expect this year — and expert advice on how to avoid them.

Virtual "holiday markets"

Let’s say your town hosts an annual holiday market. This year, it’s been canceled due to the pandemic, but someone is selling tickets for a “virtual market” on Facebook. The event doesn’t usually have an entrance fee. Should you dish out the $10 to support your community? Not without doing your due diligence.

According to the Better Business Bureau, scammers are already cashing in on quarantine by selling tickets for phony virtual events. To protect yourself, John Breyault, a VP at the National Consumers League, suggests calling the person or organization who normally plans the event to find out if it’s really happening online, and if so, whether they’re charging an entrance fee.

A few bucks might not set you back too much, but Breyault says scammers often hook people with small amounts, then trick them into spending more money on add-ons (in this case, raffle tickets or donations). “Beware that even small amounts of money can turn into bigger losses if you’re not careful.”

Another caution: It's best not to engage with dubious virtual markets at all — these scammers are also known for stealing people's credit card info and installing malware on their phones.

"Secret sister" gift exchanges

Here’s another scenario: You’re scrolling Facebook and see an acquaintance post about a gift exchange they’re participating in. If you opt in to buy one present of your choice for a “secret sister,” you’ll receive up to 36 packages in the mail. We all need a little bit of cheer right now, you think, so why not sign up?

According to Breyault, the "secret sister gift exchange," which has been circulating on social media since 2015, is a classic example of “free money scams,” where participants are conned into paying a small amount of money for the promise of getting something of greater value in return. In other words, it’s an illegal pyramid scheme, and as with every other pyramid scheme, it relies on new, unsuspecting recruits. Once people stop signing up, the gift supply halts — leaving most people out the money they spent on their present, with nothing in return.

Breayault’s advice: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And NEVER give out your personal information to someone you don’t know online.

Gift card scams

Ever come across a coveted item, like a PlayStation 5, or basically anything “Baby Yoda,” offered online at a major discount? The seller is on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, and the only catch is they want you to pay with an Amazon gift card?

This is one of the most common holiday scams out there, and it’s one of the hardest to get reimbursed for.

“Once you provide the gift card number, chances are the money will be gone, and it’s nearly impossible to recover once it’s lost,” Breyault says.

Always use your credit or debit card for online purchases. If someone’s asking you to pay with a gift card, it’s probably a scam.

Package delivery scams

Since you’re doing all your holiday shopping online this year, you may be concerned about the millions of packages getting delayed or lost thanks to an overabundance of online shoppers. But if you get an email from “UPS” asking to confirm your personal info before your packages come, go ahead and delete it.

According to Breyault, phishing scammers are taking advantage of the pandemic-related e-commerce explosion to gain sensitive information from consumers by phone, text, or email. But delivery services like UPS, Amazon Prime, and FedEx will never ask for personal info like your login or banking information. So if you get an email or text asking for any these details, you can bet it’s a scam.

If you’re worried about missing a package, call the store you ordered the item from directly to check the status, or view the tracking info online through the United Parcel Service's (UPS) verified tracker.

Bogus charities

Charity scams pop up every year around the holidays. People are in a giving mood, after all, and if their money can go towards homeless pets or needs kids, all the better.

Fraudsters may impersonate a legitimate charity, or one you’ve never heard of, but either way, they steal your money by pulling your heartstrings. Often, Breyault says, scammers make fake websites that take “donations” through PayPal for a non-existent charity.

Do your research before donating to an organization you’re unfamiliar with — the legitimate ones are usually listed on nonprofit databases like Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

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