(Federal Bureau of Investigation) — The FBI warns of cyber criminals targeting shoppers hoping to take advantage of online bargains and hard to find gift items for the holidays. 

During the 2020 holiday shopping season, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center or IC3 received over 17,000 complaints regarding the non-delivery of goods, resulting in losses over $53 million. It is anticipated this number could increase during the 2021 holiday season due to rumors of merchandise shortages and the ongoing pandemic.

Too good to be true

Criminals entice their victims in multiple ways.

• E-mails advertising hot-ticket or hard to find items, such as event tickets or gaming systems.

• Untrusted websites and ads promoting unrealistic discounts and bargains.

• Social media posts, often appearing to have been shared by a known friend, offering vouchers, gift cards, freebies, and contests.

• Social media hosted advertisements for non-existent or counterfeit items.

• Online surveys designed to steal personal information.

In addition to losing money on a bogus purchase, unsuspecting consumers may be giving away personal information and debit or credit card details. Victims may receive nothing except a compromised identity or fraudulent card charges.

The holidays are also a popular time for pet purchases. Criminals will use legitimate website photos to promise the non-existent pet to multiple buyers. Red flags include added shipping/carrier fees, taxes, and or vaccination costs. If purchasing a pet online, consider meeting the animal and owner via video chat before buying to reduce the chances of being scammed.

Tips to protect yourself

•          Verify websites prior to making a purchase. Only purchase items from official, encryption-using websites. Web addresses should begin with https:// and include a locked padlock icon.

•          Be wary of online retailers who use a free email service instead of a company email address.

•   Do not judge a company by their website; flashy websites can be set up and taken down quickly.

•          Pay for items using a credit card dedicated for online purchases, checking the card statement frequently, and never saving payment information in online accounts. 

• Be wary of sellers who accept only wire transfers, virtual currency, gift cards, or cash, as these are almost impossible to recover.

• Never make purchases using public Wi-Fi.

• Verify the legitimacy of a seller before you purchase, take steps such as looking at consumer reviews and checking with the Better Business Bureau.

• Beware of sellers posting under one name but requesting funds to be sent to another individual, or any seller claiming to be inside the country but requesting funds to be sent to another country.

•  Only purchase gift cards directly from a trusted merchant.

• Do not click on links or provide personal or financial information to an unsolicited email.

• Make sure anti-virus/malware software is up to date and block pop-up windows.

• Use safe passwords or pass phrases. Never use the same password on multiple accounts.

•   As always, if the deal sounds too good to be true, chances are it is a scam.

If you are a victim

If you are a victim of an internet scam, the FBI recommends taking the following actions:

• Report to the FBI IC3 at www.IC3.gov. as quickly as possible.

•   Report the activity to the online payment service used for the financial transaction.

• Contact your financial institution immediately to stop or reverse the transactions. Ask your financial institution to contact the corresponding financial institution where the fraudulent or suspicious transfer was sent.

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