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BBB Tip: Avoiding online purchase scams and impostors this holiday season

As the holiday season approaches, Better Business Bureau (BBB) urges consumers to
remain vigilant against a surge in online scams that could threaten their festive spirit.
During the past five years, Texas residents have reported losing $17.5 million to scams,
21% due to online purchases. BBB has identified online purchase scams as the No. 1 riskiest
scam encountered by North American consumers in both the 2021 and 2022 Scam Tracker
Risk Report, and are often enacted by impersonating reputable businesses.

Since 2018, losses to online purchase scams reported to BBB by Texas residents have
significantly increased during two times of the year – early spring and the holiday season – while the number of reports
peaks during the summer months. Often, a sense of urgency and the fear of missing out on a great deal
for a highly desired product are key influences if an online shopper loses money to a fraudulent seller. The holiday
season is a busy time for most people as they purchase gifts, make travel plans, prepare
holiday dinners, and get their homes ready for family and friends. In many cases, shoppers
do not have the time to verify the legitimacy of an online seller as thoroughly as they
typically do at other times of the year, and the existence of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and
other holiday promotions introduce difficulties in determining when a deal is “too good to
be true.”

“It is important for online shoppers to protect themselves while interacting with digital
marketplaces throughout the year, but especially during the holiday season when scammers
are out in force to take advantage of shoppers,” said Heather Massey, vice president of
communications and community relations for Better Business Bureau serving the Heart of
No matter the scheme, a key tactic of scammers is to disguise themselves as a reputable
business or government agency (known as an impostor scam), and this strategy is more
successful during the holiday season. Impostor scams have been identified as the No. 1
most reported fraud to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network since 2017, with a median
loss of $1,000 in recent years. BBB’s 2022 Scam Tracker Risk Report found some of
the most commonly impersonated companies include Amazon, Geek Squad, Publishers
Clearing House, and the U.S. Postal Service. With more people ordering products online and
expecting deliveries, fraudulent notifications about shipping issues or suspicious activity on
an account from an impostor have a greater likelihood of being taken seriously, which often
means a greater chance of losing money or personal information.

With $1.2 million reported lost across nearly 1,400 reports, the impact of online purchase scams on
Texas residents this year has already broken 5- year records, and the holiday season will likely
see these numbers increase. While BBB is concerned about these record-breaking numbers, they do not
reflect the emotional, physical, and mental stress associated with falling victim to a scam, nor the
long-lasting effects it has on an individual’s confidence to navigate a complex marketplace without
being taken advantage of.

“Our goal is to empower consumers to recognize the signs of a scam and to give them the
confidence to trust themselves when something doesn’t feel right,” said Massey. “Research
conducted by BBB found that nearly 75% of people who encountered a scam but did not
lose money simply felt something wasn’t right about the situation, so they walked away. The
next two most powerful defenses are to be generally aware of scam tactics and to research
the offer.”
This holiday season, BBB provides the following tips to help Texas residents avoid online
scams, impostors, and counterfeit items:
Use protected payment methods. BBB research found that people who pay with a credit
card or PayPal are more likely to recover their funds after sending money to a scammer.
However, with PayPal, a buyer should not send money using the platform’s Friends and
Family method. If an online seller directs you to use PayPal’s Friends and Family method, it
is most likely a scam because they know PayPal’s protection policies do not cover money
sent through that system in the same way as a business transaction.

Be wary of social media ads. Social media is a great way to stay connected with friends
and family, and it is also a great way to get exposed to a lot of different products that
appeal to you. However, not everything advertised on a social media platform is legitimate,
and scammers can easily create sponsored advertisements that will appear on your news
feed. If interacting with a social media ad, take a minute to verify it has routed you to the
right website. Better yet, go directly to the website on your own and search for the
advertised product.

Avoid links provided in unsolicited emails or text messages. If you receive an
unsolicited text message with a link, avoid following it. In many cases, there is no way of
knowing where that link will direct you, and even if you arrive at a website that appears to
look official, it could very well be a lookalike website. It may automatically download
malware on your device. If you receive a notification regarding suspicious activity on an
online account, verify the facts by contacting the company using a known and trusted
method, such as their official mobile app or the contact number on a recent bill.

Review protection policies. Become familiar with the protection policies established by
the agency or company you are being contacted by. Many companies and government
agencies prohibit their official representatives from asking you to verify personal or account
information over the phone or through email. If you ever have doubts about someone’s
legitimacy, it is best to hang up and contact the company through another method to
double-check that everything is in order.

Verify you are at the right website. Pay close attention to see if any special characters
are replacing letters, such as the Greek alpha (α) instead of ‘a’, and the domain and
subdomain match the official company website. While looking through the URL, take a
second to verify the website is secured. Poor grammar is also a good indication that a
scammer may have put together a website hastily. However, this is something that they are
getting better at avoiding, due in large part to AI content creation tools. Check the age of
the domain – a well-known company isn’t likely to have just registered their website in the
past few years.

For more information about how to avoid holiday-related marketplace issues this year,
If you or someone you know has been affected by a scam or unethical business practice,
report it to BBB through an official business complaint or Scam Tracker report. Information
provided may help another person from being affected and assist BBB in recognizing trends
in marketplace behavior.