Bah Humbug: Consumers Not Prepared for Holiday Scammers

With the holidays upon us, a new survey from the AARP Fraud Watch Network shows the traditional season for giving may become a peak time for taking among con-artists targeting Washington consumers. From charitable giving scams, to gift card and Wi-Fi cons, the report, "Beware the Grinch: Washington Consumers At Risk of Being Scammed During the Holidays," reveals that most holiday shoppers in Washington State (67 percent) fail a quiz on avoiding popular holiday scams, while many regularly engage in risky behaviors that could put them squarely in the sights of holiday con-artists.

"While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, scammers are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts," said AARP State Director Doug Shadel. "We're encouraging consumers to be on the lookout for some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families and loved ones to help keep them safe this holiday season."

Charitable giving

Among notable scams this holiday season, Shadel says charitable giving scams are especially prevalent this time of year. "Washingtonians are very generous when it comes to donating to charity," said Shadel. "But while it's good to give, it's important to give wisely."  

Last year, Americans gave $358 billion dollars to charity, according to the National Philanthropic Trust. "But we also know that there are hundreds of bogus fundraisers out there exploiting this generosity by keeping most of the money they raise for themselves," said Shadel. "This is why it is so important to ask where the money is going and check it out before giving."

Government officials who regulate charities and fundraisers say that while most charities are legitimate, there are many fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who keep 85–90 percent of the money they raise. According to AARP's survey, nearly half (49 percent) of holiday shoppers in Washington do not know that professional fundraisers are allowed to keep most of the money they raise for charity as long as they don't lie about how much they keep. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of those who donated to charity acknowledged making a donation during the past 12 months without asking the solicitor how much of their donation went to the charitable purpose versus to the cost of fundraising.

"If you knew that for every $10 you gave, only a buck went to the charity and the rest went to lining the pockets of the telemarketer, you'd probably think twice before giving to that particular solicitor," said Shadel.

Six-in-ten (60 percent) of those who donated to charity said they made a donation in the past 12 months without verifying that the fundraiser had the legal authority to raise money in their state. Nearly all holiday shoppers (96 percent) could not correctly name the government agency they should contact to verify the legitimacy of the charity or fundraiser. Washington consumers can check if a charity is registered by calling the Secretary of State's office at 1-800-332-GIVE or online at www.sos.wa.gov/charities.

Package delivery

Many holiday shoppers in Washington are unaware that package delivery companies are NOT responsible for stolen packages that are left at your front door without requiring a signature. A majority of survey respondents (83 percent) say they ship packages to friends without requiring a signature at least some of the time. Most (77 percent) holiday shoppers say that in the last year, a package has been left on their porch without requiring a signature.

Public Wi-Fi

Many holiday shoppers in Washington wrongly believe that it is okay to share sensitive information via free Wi-Fi networks as long as they are secured by https. When in fact, online security experts warn that consumers should NEVER use public Wi-Fi to access bank accounts or to buy products online. Half of respondents (53 percent) say they will use free public Wi-Fi to shop for holiday gifts this year. Of those, many will use it to access sensitive financial information like their bank account (25 percent), buy a product (44 percent) or check credit card accounts (16 percent).

Debit card vs. credit cards

Consumer protection experts recommend the use of credit cards rather than debit cards for most purchases to better protect consumers from fraud and theft. With credit cards, you are liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use. But in the case of a lost or stolen debit card, financial losses to the consumer can be much more significant. Most holiday shoppers in Washington (74 percent) say they will purchase some or all of their holiday gifts this year using a debit card.

Gift cards

Fraud experts report that thieves sometimes hit store gift card racks, secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the scammers drain the funds. By the time you try to use the same card, the money is long gone. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of survey respondents say they intend to purchase gift cards this year from a gift card rack at a big box store, pharmacy or grocery store.

AARP offers the following tips on avoiding holiday scams:

  • Ask and check:  Before donating to a charity, make sure they are registered with the Secretary of State and ask how much of the money goes to the charitable fundraiser and how much goes to the charitable purpose.
  • Surf safely: Do not use public Wi-Fi to check sensitive financial information, or to make purchases using your credit card.
  • Sign off: Require a signature on all package deliveries. You can also write specific instructions for the delivery company on where to leave your package, and don't forget, you can always have your packages delivered to you at work.
  • Take credit: Use a credit card instead of your debit card when making holiday purchases.
  • Skip the rack: Only purchase gift cards from reputable sources. Better yet, get them directly from the store they're from – and preferably directly from the store cashier – and ask them to scan the card to ensure it has the correct balance.
  • Don't stress: Pay special attention to your health and well-being when making important purchasing decisions. Research shows that people experiencing life stressors such as an illness, loneliness or financial difficulties are less able to spot and avoid scams.

For more information and detailed tips on how to avoid all manner of holiday scams, visit www.aarp.org/holidayscams. Consumers can also sign up to receive timely fraud alerts from the AARP Fraud Watch Network at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork or by calling the AARP Foundation Fraud Fighter Call Center at 1-800-646-2283.


Contributor Jason Erskine directs communications for AARP Washington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization. For more information, visit www.aarp.org/wa or visit the AARP Washington on YouTube.