How to Spot a Holiday Scam — and Find Genuine Bargains

Phony websites and knock-off designer products head the 2009 holiday scam list again — but there are new tricks to watch out for too: Internet Scambusters #362

With more than half of all consumers planning their seasonal shopping online this year, that almost certainly means there’ll also be more holiday scam victims than ever.

Websites offering non-existent gifts or cheap and nasty imitations are set to be the main threat in 2009, as in previous years.

In this issue, we explain the new twists, the latest tricks and why the risks of falling for a holiday scam are greater than ever.

Now, here we go…

How to Spot a Holiday Scam — and Find Genuine Bargains

Bogus online stores and websites peddling cheap knock-offs of branded products masquerading as the real thing are at the top of the big holiday scams of 2009.

As we head into one of the busiest shopping and traveling periods of the year, it pays to wise up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas scam risks that the increasingly smart crooks have lined up.

In fact, the just published 2009 Online Buyer Economic Trends Study reckons many people already started their holiday shopping as early as mid-September — and, presumably, some have already found out about holiday scams the hard way.

For starters, it’s worth taking a look back at some of our previous holiday scam warnings at The 7 Key Types of Holiday Scams to Watch Out For This Christmas Season.

They include important information on travel scams, which we haven’t included again this year.

You’ll also see that phony websites have occupied the Number 1 Christmas scam slot for several years.

There are three things that make the threat even greater this year:

  1. The massive increase in online shopping that retail experts are expecting. For the first time ever, more than half of all consumers are expected to buy online.That includes some who are dipping a toe in the Internet buying waters for the first time, especially older users who now feel comfortable enough to try their hand at the convenience of web shopping.
  2. The economic woes of the past year have made shoppers more bargain-conscious than ever.The lowest price is often the biggest draw — even when the buyer has never heard of the retailer before.
  3. The move online of the busiest sales promotion of the year — the so-called Black Friday sales that follow Thanksgiving.Instead of turning up for the 4am doorbusters, more shoppers will be staying home and logging on and battling for the midnight bargains.All of these things play on a human weakness: when someone appears to sell at rock bottom prices or even just tells us that they slashed their prices, we just want to believe we got a bargain.

    That won’t be the case if the item you ordered doesn’t turn up or, even if it does, it’s not what you expected. You’ve just fallen for a holiday scam.

    Countries where copyright laws hardly exist and forgery isn’t a dirty word are churning stuff out, often bearing well known brand names, other times just cheap and nasty lookalikes, whose only guarantee is to tarnish the sparkle of your holiday season.

    And remember, the sellers likely will have your credit card number and other personal details to do with what they will.

So, here are 5 quick tips to help protect you from online holiday shopping scams:

  1. Buying from reputable dealers should be a safe bet. But always check the address bar in your browser to make sure you’re where you should be! Scammers are experts at creating phony lookalike sites where you land after mistyping an address or by following a link.
  2. However, don’t rule out newcomers and smaller firms. We don’t want to stifle enterprise or genuine bargains! But if you don’t recognize the name, check it out — Google it and look for scam reports. Do your research and, if you’re even slightly suspicious, follow your instincts.
  3. If the seller accepts it, especially if you’re buying from an auction site, consider paying with PayPal. They can safeguard your purchase — and they do safeguard your credit card info.However, when you get to the PayPal site, especially if you used a link to get there, make doubly sure you’re at, not some bogus rip-off site that will harvest your sign-on details and clean out your account.And, of course, never pay by money wire; they’re untraceable and the biggest clue to an online holiday scam. And be careful using cashiers checks as well.
  4. When you’re bargain-hunting, use recognized price comparison sites like,, or special offer sites likes or — to name a few.Looking for the best price on books? Try, which will do all the searching for you.Of course, they don’t guarantee the legitimacy of the firms they reference but your chances of becoming a Christmas scam victim are significantly lower.

    There are also a couple of daily bargain sites — and — that you can buy from directly. And don’t forget to check out our own guide to the season at and find great Christmas decorations and stocking stuffers at, and Christmas gift ideas at

  5. Make sure it really is a bargain. Retailers of every shade are experts at making prices look like bargains, claiming things like “75% off.” And maybe they are 75% off — but do a price comparison check with others first.

Online shopping may be the major target for this year’s holiday scam crooks. But here are a few other things to watch out for this season:

  • People selling stuff at your front door. We warned about this holiday scam in 2008 but there’s a new twist for 2009.Holiday light installation services are the big thing this year — mostly enterprising individuals who have perhaps lost their jobs and have seen a profitable gap in the market.You’ll get a flyer offering to provide, install and uninstall the lights for anywhere between $100 and $250.

    We’re not recommending that you not use them. They can save a lot of hassle. But don’t pay upfront, not even a deposit if you can avoid it. Don’t fall for the line that they need all the money to buy the lights.

    Also, make sure you get a written guarantee that they’ll remove them (hold back part of the payment till they’re taken down) and make sure you know who owns the lights once they’re down.

  • Fake eCards. This is a whole subject in itself. But you can be sure they’ll be as big a hit as ever as holiday scams. You get a message with a link to an online greeting card but, when you click it, you end up with a virus on your PC. We covered this in Ecard Scams: Greetings! A Scammer Has Sent You an Ecard!A couple of simple rules here. Delete any messages that come from someone you don’t know or that don’t address you by name. If they do come from someone you know, email that person to check that they sent it before clicking the link.
  • Holiday rentals. 2009 has seen a surge in ads offering bogus vacation rentals. You pay a deposit or even in full to get a key and that’s the last you hear of them.Classified websites are fraught with this danger — and it can be very difficult to check their authenticity.Of course, there are many legitimate owners offering rentals this way — and countless more online. But investigate them carefully; check testimonials, do a search for other references. And again, don’t wire cash.

    There are now a large number of online rental agencies who vet owners and this may be a safer bet.

  • Phony seasonal jobs. Yes, real seasonal jobs do exist, mainly in retail but also a few in packing and manufacturing, but this year there are fewer of them and more people chasing them.Seasonal work at home schemes, like toy assembly, are usually scams. For retail and packing jobs, deal directly with the employer or a reputable agency — and never pay to get work. It’s a scam.We have several issues covering work from home scams. Start at Top 10 Work At Home and Home Based Business Scams, if you want to know more.

For the law-abiding majority of citizens, the winter holiday season should be a time to celebrate and rejoice. For the holiday scam artists it’s one of the biggest money-making opportunities of the year. Make sure you don’t give them yours!

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!