Protecting yourself

Be wary of holiday scams and ‘free’ gifts

Sienna Kossman

Oh, by gosh, by golly, it’s time for mistletoe and holly — and scams.

As the holiday season inches closer, it’s not uncommon for scammers to take advantage of consumers. If you aren’t careful, quick reactions to appealing offers could put you at risk for fraud.

Here are two particular types of scams I’ve seen circulating lately that I encourage you to watch out for this holiday season:

1. “Secret Sister Gift Exchange.”
This particular social media-based scam, which has gained major traction recently and is all over my own Facebook newsfeed, first caught the attention of scam-alert website at the end of October. There are different versions of the text, but the solicitation typically encourages participants to send one present (typically costing $10 or less) for the promise of 36 gifts in return, so long as you provide personal details such as your name and address. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Snopes has pointed out that this seems to be a repackaging of the good old chain letter gifting schemes, which not only put willing participants’ money and information at risk but are also illegal, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

However, that has not stopped people from participating. In some cases, gifts are actually being sent out and lucky participants have even posted pictures of the gifts sent from their “Secret Sisters” on social media, according to BuzzFeed. So the scheme may “work” for some people, but that doesn’t make it any less illegal or risky.

Because of how these solicitations are circulated, it’s hard to tell who will be seeing what information and if gifts will even be shipped. Sure, participants may only lose $10 if they send out a gift and get nothing back, but the risk doesn’t end there. A full name and address is a good chunk of information that could help a scammer steal a participant’s identity and conduct more serious fraud like opening credit accounts under someone else’s name.

Instead, you may want to set up a holiday gift exchange with close friends, but don’t send sensitive personal information to anyone you don’t know. And if you see someone you know sharing or participating in this scheme on social media, let them know what they’ve fallen for.

2. Redeem your “free” gift card.
This one is a little less holiday-specific, but hits closer to home.

These days my mailbox is packed with all sorts of store sale fliers and credit card offers, but this weekend I found something odd slipped inside a coupon flier:

giftcardflyer2 giftcardflyer1

It was not in an envelope, has no company name written anywhere on it and just seems sketchy. So I Googled the number listed on the front of the paper. The search didn’t return any helpful results and most of the listings were actually in a different language. I decided to call the number.

An automated message thanked me for calling the “Magazine Rewards PLUS” call center, said my call would be “extremely lucrative” and told me to hold for a representative. When a representative came on the line, he asked me for my name, address, phone number and a credit card number in order to process my “free Wal-Mart gift card” offer and a free, 3-month magazine subscription of my choice. I asked why he needed a credit card number if it was free and he said, “I’m required to collect that information so we can bill you after your trial magazine subscription ends.”

If a little voice inside your head is screaming “RED FLAG!” right now, you are reacting the same way I did.

I hung up the phone and searched “Magazine Rewards PLUS” and found a real website, but also a slew of consumer complaint posts, a Scambook submission and a Facebook thread of people ranting about mysterious charges after falling for this supposed scam. The company is also not listed as an accredited Better Business Bureau company and has in fact been flagged by the BBB.

After this incident, I did another online search for holiday gift card scams and found a Nov. 9 report from a Columbus, Georgia, news outlet about a similar “free gift card” offer left at an employee’s door. A BBB spokesman told the station — which is only 250 miles away from where I live, oddly enough — they’ve received complaints about similar scams recently and warned consumers to be wary of requests for information in exchange for a gift card. Report any suspicious solicitations to your local Better Business Bureau branch.

Take caution
Regardless of where you live, be on alert for scams that may be especially attractive this time of year. Don’t compromise the security of sensitive information — such as credit card numbers or your home address — for the “promise” of a free gift card or other enticing perk.

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