How to Dodge Black Friday Scams This Season
Shopaholics and gift-givers are gearing up for the most exciting time of the year. No, not Thanksgiving or Christmas, but Black Friday. And let's not forget all its cousins: Cyber Monday, Small Biz Sunday, Giving Tuesday, and even Gray Thursday (looks like poor Sunday got skipped over). A lot of people take this Holy Week of shopping quite seriously — maybe even too seriously.
Black Friday indeed brings many great deals worth waiting all year for. Some of them sound too good to be true. Unfortunately, some are too good to be true. Scams in general are up recently: the Federal Trade Commission reported a 30% increase in scams over 2021. We'll give you a list of things to watch out for this year so you can get the most from your holiday shopping without being a victim of these rising scams.
What's the technical definition of a "scam"? Well, legally, there isn't one. We use the word "scam" in casual everyday life for things that the law calls by other names. But in many cases, you can think of scammy activity as being captured under some type of "fraud," which the law does define.
Legally, fraud can be either a crime or a civil wrong in tort law. Within criminal law, there are many specific types of fraud such as wire fraud, bankruptcy fraud, credit card fraud, or healthcare fraud. Not every form of fraud is legally defined under this word: sometimes, fraudulent acts or what you might think of as a "scam" may be captured under larceny or forgery statutes.
In civil law, acts of scamming or fraud are often litigated based on the misrepresentation of a fact. You can also think of this as a fake promise or a lie. This could be intentional (someone deliberately lied) or just plain negligent (they weren't careful enough to make sure they told the truth). Whoever was the "victim" must have relied on that promise and been harmed as a result.
The severity of the punishment for fraud depends on the type of fraud, the number of victims, and the amount of money involved.
The most common scams that happen over Black Friday are relatively minor frauds. These often involve the victim buying a product under conditions that were not what they expected, but nonetheless willingly giving the merchant money or credit card information. The result is that, on paper, the allegedly fraudulent transaction was authorized by the buyer, even though they were deceived by the fine print. However, more serious crimes such as identity theft can also occur.
One more egregious type of scam you've probably heard of is known as "phishing."
Phishing is a type of cybercrime in which criminals attempt to trick people into revealing sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. Phishers often pose as legitimate organizations in emails or text messages, and they may create fake websites that look like the real websites of banks, credit card companies, or other trusted businesses.
The scammers pose as large and popular companies that many shoppers use: FedEx, Amazon, eBay, UPS, Google, Netflix, Facebook, the IRS, PayPal, banks, Harbor Freight, Microsoft, or the U.S. Postal Service. The scammers send you an email imitating one from the real company, laced with fraudulent links that will take your personally indefinable information, either directly from you, or by installing malware on your device.
Phishing can use different methods such as urging you to click on a link or install a program or browser extension. There are different names for different methods of phishing: "vishing" when it's done over a voice call; "smishing" if it's over SMS text.
Other Common Scams
Here are a few classic misleading, or outright bogus, purchases:
- Unwanted subscriptions: The advertisement for an offer or deal may hide automatic subscriptions in the fine print. These are unwanted additional services that will bill an amount every month.
- Hidden fees: The offer may show a false or misleading price, only making that clear elsewhere or in the fine print. There, it will clarify that you will be charged the "full price" of the product in future installments or if you do not return the product within a certain period of time.
- Fake websites: Some scammers will get you by making fake websites that resemble real ones and have a similar address (e.g., the domain may have the same name but end in ".co" instead of ".com." This is known as "typosquatting," which might sound silly, but is pretty serious when it happens to you.
- Fake charities: Fraudsters will also pose as charities asking for donations through websites or via email.
- Fake coupons and gift cards: Scammers will also send imitation "gift cards" and coupons with big discounts from known companies. These also come in the form of fake websites or emails, although social media is another notable medium for these scams.
- Fake packages: This is where a fake company texts or emails you about a shipment — often one that is delayed or a package that went missing. These will often come with a phishing link asking you to "update" your information about shipping or credit card.
- Fake order: This is similar to fake delivery or fake shipping, except that the scammer will send you an order confirmation number to make the purchase look legitimate.
- Inability to process payment: This scam involves someone reaching out to you pretending to be from a company that you may use regularly, such as Netflix or Amazon. They'll claim that "your payment could not be processed" and that they "need your updated credit card information."
- Account verification: This involves scammers pretending to be from a real company and asking for your personal information to "verify your account" to purportedly ensure security.
Don't Get Duped!
Here are a few good habits for avoiding scams this holiday season:
- Check that the website is up-to-date (showing the current date at the bottom of the page). Also, look for the seller's contact details and for signs that it might belong to anyone other than the company you think it is. Another good practice to avoid "typosquatting" is to enter the website you want by a search in your browser instead of entering the URL manually.
- Take the time to actually read the terms and conditions. They might be long, but they're reliable.
- Do a quick search for the company and the words "scam" or "fraud" and see what comes up. Many people report fraudulent companies on forums.
- In general, don't buy from anyone who calls you. Initiate calls yourself to make sure you are indeed communicating with the real merchant. And don't give your credit card information to anyone claiming to be from Google, Netflix, Facebook, UPS, the IRS, PayPal, banks, Harbor Freight, Microsoft, Amazon, or any other large company that calls you.
- Don't click on e-mails with links promoting offers or free products. Check what email address they come from. A classic example is when an email claims to be from a company and the address ends in "@gmail.com" or another domain instead of the company's official website domain.
- Don't install programs or even browser extensions that ask you to "activate" offers. It could be a scam to obtain your personal information.
- Use your credit card if possible, not your debit card. Credit cards generally offer stronger protection against scams due to their liability limitations, dispute resolution processes, transaction timelines, fraud monitoring systems, and identity theft protection services. While debit cards offer the convenience of direct access to your bank account, this also makes them more vulnerable to fraud. And don't forget to check your credit card statements periodically for signs of suspicious activity.
What Can I Do If I've Been Scammed?
- If you found an unpleasant surprise in the fine print of a transaction, contact the merchant as soon as you can. In some cases, they will cancel the unwanted subscription or refund the amount debited from your card if you return the product. Plus, your credit card company will likely ask you if you tried to communicate directly with the merchant first before talking to them. so start with this step. Of course, this step only works for "authorized" transactions such as "fine print" scams, unwanted subscriptions, hidden fees, or other minor mishaps. This does not apply to serious fraud. If you were scammed by one fraudulent company posing as another, you should definitely not contact them.
- If the merchant is unresponsive or refuses to refund your money or replace a defective product, go to your credit card company and ask to dispute the charge, and cancel any future recurring transactions from the merchant. Banks should investigate the matter on their own once you alert them. They can also refuse unauthorized withdrawals and freeze payments.
- Finally, if neither the merchant nor your card company will give you a solution, you can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. The Bureau states that it is illegal to hide key terms in the fine print.
- If you think you have a more serious consumer fraud case, you should contact an experienced consumer protection attorney.
- If this doesn't seem all that optimistic, the Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers 60 days of protection to claim a refund from the time the purchase is billed.
As always, it's better to be safe than sorry. By being a little more cautious when it comes to merchant encounters, you can save yourself the headache of having to dispute charges for a purchase that turns out to be a scam.
Black Friday Shenanigans (FindLaw's Don't Judge Me podcast)Email Scams and Telemarketing Fraud (FindLaw's Elder Law resource pages)What You Need To Know About Online Scamming and the Law (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life blog)
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