It wasn’t just the pandemic that pushed more people online. Long before COVID, more shoppers decided to skip the crowds and simply click for their holiday gifts.
And I get it. I hate shopping – especially during the holidays. There’s the hunt for a parking space, the throngs of customers, the long checkout line at stores with 10 lanes but only three cashiers working the registers.
The old phrase “Shop till you drop” has become more like “Shop till you want to scream.”
So it makes sense that for the first time in Gallup’s look at holiday spending trends, a majority of Americans – 56% – say they are very likely to do their Christmas shopping online. That’s up eight percentage points from 2017.
In 1998, when Gallup first asked about online shopping, only 4% of Americans said they were likely to shop via the Internet. Gallup doesn’t ask the question every year.
“The trend since 2017 looks more like just a continuation of the organic growth in people moving their lives online that’s been happening over the past 20 years, rather than a pandemic-driven bump,” Lydia Saad, director of U.S. social research at Gallup, said in an interview.
Americans said they are personally planning to spend an average of $886 on Christmas gifts, according to the Gallup poll. This makes the holiday season prime time for scammers. With online shopping presenting more opportunities for fraudsters, here are some tips to protect yourself online.
Pay with a credit card, not a debit card
You may be thinking you can avoid getting into debt by paying with your debit card. But a credit card purchase offers more consumer protections than a debit card.
If you pay with a credit card for goods or services not received, you have certain rights under the Fair Credit Billing Act. Federal law limits your responsibility for unauthorized charges to $50, and even then most credit lenders won’t make you pay anything. Charges for goods and services that weren’t delivered as agreed can be disputed as a billing error. You can ask your credit card company to temporarily withhold payment while it investigates a fraudulent purchase.
The rules governing your debit card fall under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, which doesn’t have a not-delivered-as-agreed type of error that can be challenged, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
If you pay with a debit card for a service or product that is never received, you have to work with your bank to dispute the charge that has already been deducted from your account. This could mean some time before the transaction is reversed. Your debit card is directly tied to your bank account, and fraudulent transactions can quickly do a lot of damage.
If you don’t have a credit card, use a prepaid debit card to purchase things online.
Watch for unrealistic shipping promises
Supply chain issues have led to shortages, and scammers know folks will be looking for retailers that can promise fast and free delivery. In your desperation to get a gift in time for the holiday, you could fall for a scam. But you risk not just getting something late – it might never come. Be a skeptic about shipping guarantees that seem too good to be true.
Look out for fake shipping text messages and emails
Don’t click on anything in a text or email. It could be legit, but why take the risk? Instead, go to the retailer’s website and type in your shipping or purchase code to double-check details about your order, the Better Business Bureau advises.
Be a guest
Lots of online shopping sites want you to create an online account to make a purchase. But to do so, you have to give up personal information stored on yet another database. If you end up dealing with a fraudulent site, you’ll be giving up information that could be used for present and future scams. Check out as a guest so you don’t have to provide too much information.
Don’t be fooled by an offer of a gift card
Inflation has you worried about how far your money will go. But that email or text offering a $50 gift card is fake. They all are. Seriously. If you think it’s real, then go to the retail site online or call customer service to determine whether the offer is legitimate.
Scammers love gift cards, too
If you’re told to pay for an item with a gift card, you’re about to be scammed, according to the FTC. This is a favorite payment method for scammers because it’s like paying in cash. It’s nearly impossible to get your money back.
Look for a physical address
“Legitimate online stores should provide you with a physical address and working phone number in the contact section,” the Better Business Bureau says.
If you have to hunt for a way to contact the retailer, that’s a red flag you should not ignore. Return and shipping policies should be clear and easy to understand, the BBB says.
Scammers have become so clever that it’s often hard to figure out what’s fake and what’s real. They read the news, too, and will play to your fears about inflation, delivery delays and certain hot items being out of stock.
Assume any holiday deal you receive by text or email is fraudulent. Don’t click on anything. Unless you’re willing to do some sleuth work, patronize known retailers.
Your best defense is to be super paranoid about everything to make sure the season of giving doesn’t turn into a season of taking from you.
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