Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 38° Partly Cloudy
News >  Features

You better watch out: Experts offer tips to avoid scams this holiday season – or any time of year

Don and Tina Frogner of Spokane don’t want others to go through what they did, especially among rushed holiday travelers searching online frantically for a phone number to change flights suddenly. The Frogners were in that dilemma in August when they had to fly home early from a family vacation in Hawaii. Tina looked on Google and found what she thought was an Alaska Airlines priority number. It wasn’t; it was a scam costing more than $500.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Don and Tina Frogner of Spokane don’t want others to go through what they did, especially among rushed holiday travelers searching online frantically for a phone number to change flights suddenly. The Frogners were in that dilemma in August when they had to fly home early from a family vacation in Hawaii. Tina looked on Google and found what she thought was an Alaska Airlines priority number. It wasn’t; it was a scam costing more than $500. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Scammers find new targets this season among people in a holiday rush or with their guard down. Tactics include draining gift cards, sham charities, package thieves and false goods or services.

Don and Tina Frogner of Spokane don’t want others to go through what they did, if harried holiday travelers search for a phone number online to book flight changes. A family emergency forced their early return from Hawaii in August.

Tina Frogner had searched on Google and found what she thought was an Alaska Airlines priority number. It wasn’t, a mistake costing them $538 for an alleged change fee.

“They’re preying on you’re being anxious because of a crisis, or you’re less on guard,” said Frogner, after their disputed credit card charge took three months to resolve.

“I think they focus on hectic times, the holidays, sudden weather changes. As we’re getting into the holidays and people are trying to travel, this could happen.”

She said the man on the call apparently had third-party travel site access to book flights but didn’t identify himself. It sounded legitimate, as he asked for a confirmation number, described the original tickets, canceled them and made a new reservation for three days earlier.

“He gave me the new confirmation number, then proceeds to say, ‘You know you bought those tickets with miles, so there’s a fee now, and you’re going to have to pay the fee in cash.’ I guess I was in such a state of thinking about everything I needed to do that it never even dawned on me that Alaska doesn’t normally charge change fees.

“All this time, I thought I was talking to Alaska Airlines. He never said he was not from Alaska Airlines.”

After giving credit card information, Frogner said the man sent a DocuSign to authorize, which seemed suspicious. But Frogner felt stuck to sign it after the first reservation was canceled. Afterward, she called her daughter, who warned of the scam. “I called the bank right away, and I told them to put the charge in dispute,” Frogner said.

The couple then contacted a legitimate Alaska Airlines chatline. An agent rebooked their seats with a new confirmation number and asked them to report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau. Frogner learned of thousands of similar travelers’ complaints regarding false numbers for various airlines.

Families do need to be aware that certain scams arise during the holidays, and even for travel, said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. After hearing of the Spokane couple’s story, Ferguson said it sounded familiar. He once had a similar experience.

“It was a while ago; I kind of forgot about it,” Ferguson said. “Fortunately, I didn’t lose anything, but I think I did the same thing – just Googled it – I hate to admit, but looking for Alaska Airlines and I dialed it.

“I was trying to switch a reservation or make a reservation, and at some point, I got suspicious. I think they wanted to charge me some fee that didn’t make sense. It dawned on me that I’m talking to a scam and hung up. Nothing ever happened; I never gave them any information or didn’t pay anything, but I can see how it could happen.”

Requests from sham charities also can sound legitimate, he said. Scammers might use names close to known entities.

“The generosity of Washingtonians around the holidays is certainly true, and we do see scams that frankly prey on Washingtonians’ desire to help people over the holidays,” Ferguson said. “It’s always heartbreaking because these are situations where people are handing over their hard-earned money trying to help someone, and really all it’s doing is lining the pockets of a scammer.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to discourage Washingtonians from giving and helping people out. We just want them to exercise some extra caution before they make that contribution to better ensure it gets to the right recipient for the right purposes.”

To avoid such scams, take time for research and use caution if you’re unfamiliar with a named charity.

Ferguson suggested to avoid giving cash if it’s not a trusted organization. He gave an example of a scam case outside a grocery store that implied giving cash for hungry children, but the money went to the individual.

“We see that over and over again. And, of course, avoid giving out credit card information over the phone. We encourage doing some basic research online with the name of an organization and the word ‘scam’ or ‘complaints’ in the search. See what pops up.”

People also can check if the entity is registered with the Secretary of State and that it’s not part of any lawsuit.

A recent AARP study found that many consumers might open themselves up to risk this holiday season and offered several tips:

• Clarify donation goals. Do additional charity research at give.org, charitywatch.org or charitynavigator.org. Make a list of your charitable giving toward the organizations you want to support. You can decline other requests by saying you’ve already made your giving decisions.

• Consider using a credit card for gift buying this month. Nearly 70% of U.S adults will use their debit cards this holiday season, but debit cards do not offer the same protections as a credit card, AARP said.

• Buy gift cards carefully. AARP said purchases at grocery stores or pharmacies is common (60%), but gift cards are also a known target for scammers. Visit a retailer’s website and buy the card online. If you do buy from a store, inspect cards for tampering. Keep activation and purchase receipts.

• Watch apps: Nearly half of U.S. adults intend to use peer-to-peer apps such as Venmo to send money. It’s not recommended if you don’t know the person well.

• Plan for delivered boxes. Ask shippers if packages can be held for pickup or request placement in a discreet place or nondescript box and out of view. Scammers might send fake shipping emails to get consumers to disclose payment or personal information. Ignore such urgent demands.

• Be careful online: About 35% of U.S. adults reported fraud when buying a product through an online ad. Some might download malicious software or lead to a cloned site of a legitimate store. Ferguson suggested avoiding emails or ads that promote unrealistic deals. “We have seen situations of fake retail websites that may be a convincing copy of a legitimate site or an entirely made up site. People buy something that actually never arrives.”

And as far as travel scams, Frogner urges people verify a phone number against the airline’s website and ask for credentials. “Take a breath, make sure you’re calling your airlines, ask them directly are you with Alaska, Southwest, Delta? All of the airlines are hit by these people.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.