Holiday shopping in 2022: hunting for gifts in an ocean of scams

With the holiday season just around the corner, millions of last-minute shoppers are making haste to secure their presents just in time for Christmas. And that’s exactly who cybercriminals are on the lookout for.

The global supply chain crisis, the COVID pandemic, and chip shortages continue to cause major headaches for shippers, shoppers, and manufacturers alike. In view of this, the 2022 holiday shopping season is bound to be a dizzying ride for many.

As finding the perfect gift in time becomes increasingly difficult, consumers will become more desperate to do just that. And lowering your guard out of that desperation is just what cybercriminals want.

By using the heightened sense of urgency against you, scammers, scalpers, social engineers, and other bad actors try to get their hands on your precious personal data, login credentials, credit card numbers, and more.

“What inevitably happens during the holiday season is that seemingly out of nowhere, a number of online retailers begin to pop up,” warns Carla Diaz, Co-founder of Broadband Search. “And they all purportedly house popular gift items, such as new consoles or hard to find collectibles, for seemingly next to nothing compared to other familiar retailers.”

According to her, a lot of times, these pop-up websites will sell either only extremely hard-to-find items, or their repertoire will be too small for any legitimate online business. “For example, you might see a website that has listings for a new Playstation 5 for only $200. Not only that, but they only have five left in their inventory,” Diaz notes.

Holiday shopping scams 2022 - scalping

Unsurprisingly, these pop-up scam sites will usually include very little information and seem like a “rushed web design project,” as opposed to a legitimate digital storefront.

“Scammers behind these sites will sell the buyer an item only to leave them with an emailed invoice and no tracking number in the meantime,” Diaz told CyberNews. “All the while, the scammers will use the credit card or financial information you’ve given them to make their own purchases while you wait for the non-existent item to ship out.”

She urges shoppers to be careful and make sure to only shop on reputable or familiar websites this year. “And if a price seems way too good to be true, check online to see if someone has verified the site is secure to purchase from,” Diaz suggests.

Emotional blackmail

Found a website that offers new and discounted Beats headphones, with overnight shipping after immediate online payment? It’s probably a scam, warns Professor Michael Huth, Head of the Department of Computing at Imperial College London and Chief Research Officer of Xayn.

“Scammers will exploit the scarcity of desired must-haves to manipulate people into believing that they have struck gold,” he adds. “When you see offers that are too good to be true, clear your browser cache, close your browser, and start again with increased vigilance.”

As an example of emerging seasonal frauds, Huth points to scam SMS messages that portend to be from delivery companies. “They will play a role now, too, when deliveries reach their annual peak,” he told CyberNews.

“Never trust the source of such texts blindly. Honest companies will always send such information through previously established channels such as your online account and its emails.”

-Professor Michael Huth

According to Professor Huth, most scams originate from criminal organizations that have set up “increasingly sophisticated but scalable attacks from overseas.” The scammers will try to convince you that a gift you just ordered online resulted in the seller mistakenly putting money into your bank account.

“Naturally, the “seller” wants this to be repaid quickly and through a channel that is harder to trace – such as FedEx pick up at an Airbnb location,” says Professor Huth. “Emotional blackmail is often involved when the employee states with a tearful voice that otherwise he will have to cover for that loss.”

Exploiting scarcity

“We’ve seen a lot of scam companies taking advantage of the panic and profiting off of consumers,” says Pauline Manu, a consumer advocate manager at consumer protection firm Sitejabber. “And as the online shopping surge continues, scammers pivot to sell fake products to meet the needs of consumers shopping from home.”

Manu argues that the supply chain crisis is likely to push consumers to search for alternatives to their usual places of online shopping. “Shoppers will need to watch out for scam websites and listings that will either send them a fake product or nothing at all, or simply steal their personal information,” she told CyberNews, adding that fake social media ads for in-demand products will be a major method of luring in unsuspecting victims.

Holiday shopping scams 2022

At the same time, scammers are also phishing for credentials via good old phone scams, with at least 25,841 phone attacks detected by mail protection firm INKY among its customers.

How to avoid being scammed this holiday season

When it comes to holiday shopping in 2022, there are more dangers to watch out for than usual. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Thankfully, by following a few simple precautions, you can significantly reduce your chances of being taken advantage of by cybercriminals.

If you happen to encounter anything that seems suspicious or out of place when gift shopping, Professor Michael Huth recommends doing the following:

  1. Watch out for warning signs common to all scams. These include conveyance of urgency to close a transaction, insistence on immediate transfer of funds, and refusal to accept trusted payment services such as PayPal or Visa cards.
  2. Ask yourself: Do I know and trust this online company? If not, does this company have external credentials and recommendations?
  3. Decide slowly. When making a purchase, take a breather and keep in control of the decision-making. Most scams aim to move that control quickly away from you.
  4. Don’t make online purchases for others. Don’t do it, even if they appear to be family or friends – unless they are loved ones who are requesting this in person, over a known phone number, or via another trusted channel.
  5. Don’t commit to a transaction of payment under pressure. This is especially true if you started out relaxed and happy to shop, and suddenly feel out of control or pressured into closing a deal. This is also good advice for offline shopping.

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