By Michele Wojciechowski, Next Avenue Contributor
It’s the most wonderful time of the year — unless you get scammed.
“In this season of generosity, people let down their guards and tend not to be as skeptical as they would be the rest of the year,” says Christopher Elliott, founder of the consumer-advice nonprofit Elliott Advocacy and author of How to be the World’s Smartest Traveler.
With that in mind, here’s a guide to some scams that proliferate around the holidays and how to avoid getting fleeced by them:
Booking places to stay during the holidays or for a vacation gift can be convenient when done online. But before you do, be sure it’s the real deal.
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“Scammers know that this is a great time to rip people off with fake vacations. This is their busiest time of year,” notes Elliott.
In fact, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) just released an eye-opening study of rental scams involving vacation properties.
The report says: “BBB has received numerous reports of people who arrive at a vacation property with their families and luggage after having made advance payments only to discover that the location doesn’t exist or is not available for rent, leaving people stranded with nowhere to stay and finding their money has disappeared.”
Elliott says crooks often demand victims wire money before their trip. “Never wire money,” he cautions. “When you pay with a credit card, you’re protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act. So, you can dispute a charge and get your money back. But if you pay with anything other than a credit card you will have fewer protections. Wiring money is the worst because once that money goes somewhere, there’s no way to send it back.”
Vacation scammers also like to use tactics to rope you in. For example, they’ll use the scarcity ploy: “If you book now, I can get you a reduced rate. But you have to book now!” Or: “If you don’t send that money now, this deal will be gone. I’m just looking out for you.”
When searching for online travel deals, stick with legitimate, trustworthy brands, Elliott advises, like Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz or Kayak. “Or go directly to your airline or hotel website,” he adds. “If you see a site that has a deal that’s too good to be true and it’s a site you don’t recognize, go look somewhere else.”
Many legitimate companies sell timeshares, where you lock in the right to use the same accommodation year after year, often for holiday vacations. But many timeshare companies are run by crooks.
The timeshare scam usually works like this: The scammer invites victims to a presentation at a mall or a pop-up store on the premise of traveling for less money. The attendees write checks and then the fraudsters disappear.
“If they’re engaging in high-pressure sales tactics or they won’t let you take the contract home to read through it — those are the tell-tale signs of a scam,” says Elliott.
Another timeshare scam: companies that claim they have people who’ll buy or rent the owners’ units, take the owners’ cash (perhaps $2,500 or more) and then fail to make good on their promise.
These types of scams are so prevalent, sometimes the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gets involved.
In October 2019, the FTC announced it was mailing more than 8,000 refund checks totaling $2.7 million to people scammed by Pro Timeshare Resales into paying an upfront fee to resell their timeshares. The company was forced to surrender assets and banned from reselling timeshares.
Another prevalent scam this time of year involves puppies bought online, says Katherine Hutt, national spokeswoman for the BBB. Frequently, they’re meant to be holiday gifts to family members.
“According to the BBB Scam Tracker Risk Report, pets are the number one online purchase that turns out to be fake,” says Hutt. “Scammers create websites filled with adorable photos and offer great prices, but then keep adding charges such as extra shipping fees, ‘required’ vet visits and shots. Each request for more money makes it seem as if your new family member is that much closer to coming home, but, in reality, the puppy never existed in the first place.”
The BBB gives the following tips to avoid puppy scams:
- If possible, try to pick up the puppy in person. Puppy scams depend on buyers trusting that the animals will be delivered to them.
- Be careful about buying a puppy from anyone you don’t know, and be especially skeptical if the price is much lower than normal.
- Avoid wiring money or using prepaid cards or gift cards to pay for transporting animals. Instead pay by credit card in case you need to challenge the purchase later.
Gift Card Scams
The BBB also sees crooks stealing the value of gift cards during the holidays.
“Scammers can copy the numbers off unsold cards — even those displayed in a store — and, once you purchase the card, they can download the cash value before you even realize it’s gone,” says Hutt.
Another gift card scam to beware of: discounted gift cards advertised on social media or in text messages. These cards could be fake or could be real cards that are either stolen or worthless, Hutt says.
If you buy a gift card in a store, the BBB advises, make sure it’s not damaged and that the PIN isn’t exposed. Also, register the card if the retailer allows.