‘Everyone is vulnerable:’ How to protect your information during holiday shopping, giving season

Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 6:56 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 25, 2021 at 10:11 AM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - We are entering into the most wonderful time of the year, and many will be spending their dollars online, whether it be for gifts or for charitable giving.

However, experts say it’s also a great time for scammers to target you with deals you may not know you should pass up.

According to a new survey by the AARP Fraud Watch Network, 75% of American adults say they have experienced being targeted holiday fraud.

“The highest number of those folks were giving to a charity,” said Joe Meyers, AARP South Carolina’s associate state director for communication and advocacy.

More seniors, and more people in general, are heading online in 2021 to complete their holiday shopping and giving.

Maurice Jones, Director of Operations for the Horry County Council on Aging, said during the pandemic they’ve seen higher rates of seniors heading to the internet to get their shopping done.

“You would be surprised at the seniors that are online doing more things, and are so vulnerable against, especially with people that want to take advantage of them,” he said.

The Identity Theft Resource Center said they’ve seen many new adopters of online shopping in 2020, and they’re expected to return this year. That’s on top of even more people looking to spend in the digital marketplace.

It also means the number of scams in this time period has also ramped up.

ITRC’s CEO and president Eva Velasquez said the way someone may be targeted can vary from demographic to demographic, but the unfortunate consequence is lost personal information or money.

“There’s a lot of social engineering going on right now by the scammers, and when I talk about ‘social engineering,’ I mean they find a hook that resonates with you as an individual. They know that you care about something, that you engage in some activity. Whatever it is, it feels very personal to you,” she said. “So whether you’re 25 or 85, they can find that hook that is going to compel you to share your information over, share it and share your data.”

So that’s why you need to put up your guard ahead of time.

ITRC recommends the following:

  • Do your homework: If it’s an unfamiliar retailer or charity, do your homework to double-check that they’re reputable. You can do that by checking out a business or charity through sites like:
    • Better Business Bureau
    • Yelp
    • Guidestar
    • Charity Navigator

“Even doing a quick Google search with the word ‘scam’ or ‘complaint’ after the name of the company can give you some information about what other customers’ experiences were,” Velasquez said. “And then you can make an educated choice about whether you’re going to, again, either give or make a purchase from that entity.”

  • Don’t overshare your personal information: It’s not necessary to disclose your Social Security number, driver’s license or passport information in order to make a purchase or donation online. Velasquez says the only information you should be expecting to have to disclose is:
    • Your name
    • Your address
    • Your payment information
    • Your shipment address

If a website is demanding more, Velasquez says to walk away.

“That’s a huge red flag,” she said.

It’s also recommended to simply take a step back to evaluate before making a purchase.

“Right now, the scammers are going to be capitalizing on that sense of urgency, that feeling of ‘Oh, if I don’t make this purchase right now, I might miss this deal. It won’t be available to me.’ And they know that works,” Velasquez explained. “That makes us make emotional decisions when we should be making logical ones.”

Jones also encourages seniors to take a day to consider before they press “submit”, in order to make sure it’s what they want, and not what someone is pressuring them to do.

Experts also recommend always using a credit card if able. There are many more consumer protections available to you if something goes wrong.

“If they go purchase something, don’t do it with a bank transaction card; do it with a credit card,” Jones said.

If you’re unable to use a credit card, and are electing to pay an unfamiliar retailer with a person-to-person payment method (Venmo, CashApp), or a debit card, only proceed with “extreme caution.”

“You’re starting to add up some of the more risky behaviors there,” Velasquez said. “So if you’re going to an unknown retailer, please, by all means, use a credit card.”

Velasquez said there is no need to be ashamed or embarrassed in asking for help if you do fall victim to a scam.

If you feel like you can’t distinguish between if a retailer or charity is legitimate, the ITRC offers a help center on their website, as well as a number you can call if your identity has been compromised.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network also provides a help center where you can read more about types of scams, as well as a hotline if you need help after your personal information or money is compromised.

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