Special to Iredell Free News

U.S. Attorney Dena J. King has issued a warning to alert consumers about a potential uptick in online scams during the holiday season, and cautioned against financial schemes that target older adults. To further the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s efforts to protect seniors from online scams, federal prosecutors hosted a game of Fraud Bingo today, to educate older Americans about online fraudsters and internet schemes that specifically target the elderly.

“December is the month of giving, but it’s also the time of year when cybercriminals try to take advantage of consumers, quickly turning a joyous season into a living nightmare,” King said. “Whether shopping online for a gift, choosing a charity for a donation, or applying for seasonal work to earn extra money, it is imperative for everyone to stay vigilant against online scams and identity theft schemes. It’s important for all of us to do all we can to protect our hard-earned money and our personal information from financial predators.”

2023 Holiday Scams

According to the FBI’s 2022 Internet Crimes Report, North Carolina is ranked among the top 20 States for online financial fraud, both in the number of victims and in monetary losses. The report notes that in 2022 Americans lost a combined total of over $281 million to internet scams, including online shopping and “non-delivery” schemes, that generally spike during the holiday season.

Here are the most common scams that consumers may encounter during the holiday season this year:

Fake Online Stores or “Lookalike Stores.” Be on the lookout for online stores that are either entirely fake or made to look like a legitimate store. Watch out for red flags, such as deeply discounted prices especially for in-demand items, like electronics, jewelry, and clothing. Be particularly careful with social media ads that link you to bogus online stores or product listings. These scams target shoppers looking to buy luxury or hard-to-find items at an affordable price. Consumers may end up with stolen credit card information or paying for an item that is never received.

Missed Delivery/Non-Delivery Notification. With the rise in online shopping, lots of packages arrive at our front door during the holiday season. Beware of fake delivery notification emails or text messages alerting you of a missed package delivery. Do not be quick to click on the link provided in a text or email, as you may be directed to a website designed to steal your information. Make sure you pay attention to the domain address of the link to ensure it is a reputable delivery site and be especially cautions with delivery websites that ask for your personal or payment information in order to complete a package delivery.

Gift Card Scams. Gift card scams involve either scamming consumers into buying fake gift cards or tricking consumers into using gift cards to pay for fraudulent goods or services. For example, avoid online stores or advertisements that purport to sell commercial gift cards at deeply discounted prices. While they may have you believe you are buying a gift card on sale, in fact you may end up receiving a gift card with zero money value. Instead, purchase gift cards from reputable retailers.

Fake Charities. During the holidays, cybercriminals seek to take advantage of consumers’ generosity through fraudulent charities, GoFundMe campaigns, and other charitable causes. These types of scams can be particularly difficult to decipher, so before donating money be extra cautious about selecting a charity. If donating online, research the charity thoroughly, check with the Better Business Bureau, and take a look at the charity’s URL and website for telltale signs of fraud, including misspellings, bad grammar, and no contact information. For GoFundMe type of donations research the organizer or the group behind the campaign before making a donation.

Phishing Emails or Texts. Cybercriminals take advantage of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to dupe consumers via phishing emails or texts that contain suspicious links. Be particularly mindful of purported communications from your bank or credit card company, warning you that your account has been compromised. These phishing emails or texts generally prompt you to click on the provided link to log into your account to update your compromised information, so scammers can steal your information. Also avoid clicking on emails that promise free giveaways, prompt you to claim a prize, or ask you to confirm a reservation or other booking. If you receive this type of communication do not use the provided link. For example, if it’s an email related to a compromised bank account, instead of using the link in the email, go to your bank’s main website to log into your account.

Fraudulent Seasonal Jobs. Employment scams tend to increase during the holiday season, as scammers prey on individuals seeking to make extra money. Be mindful of fake job ads, especially online job listings that offer really good money for very little work. Do not ever pay upfront for any equipment or training you need for a new job. Also, do not readily provide your personal identifying information (social security number, date of birth, address, etc.) or your financial and banking information without confirming the job is legitimate. Be particularly mindful of money mule schemes, in which a fake employer asks you to cash a check through your bank, keep a portion of the money, and then send the rest of the money back to the employer.

Scams Targeting Older Adults

U.S. Attorney King also noted that older adults are particularly vulnerable of becoming victims of online fraud, not only during the holidays, but throughout the year. According to the FBI’s 2022 Internet Crimes Report, adults 60 years and older reported the highest financial losses last year, with a combined $3.1 billion in money lost to financial fraud.

In an effort to educate older adults about online scams and financial fraud, today the U.S. Attorney’s Office hosted a scam alert seminar at the Rutherford County Senior Center, during which participants were presented important information about financial fraud. Following the presentation, the attendees played a game of “Fraud Bingo,” a fun activity designed to deliver information and practical tips on how to prevent the financial exploitation and victimization of older adults by scammers.

“Online scams that target seniors are a growing concern in North Carolina,” King said. “We have a responsibility to protect our vulnerable older population from financial fraud and from scammers that victimize seniors and threaten to leave them in financial peril. Elder Fraud Bingo is an entertaining way to help older adults understand how scams operate and to educate them on how to protect themselves from financial ruin.”

Some examples of financial fraud targeting seniors are:

Lottery Phone Scams – in which the callers convince seniors that a large fee or taxes must be paid before they can receive lottery winnings.

Grandparent Scams – which convince seniors that their grandchildren are in trouble and need money to make rent, repair a car, or even money for bail.

Romance Scams – which lull victims to believe that their online paramour needs funds for a U.S. visit or some other purpose.

Tech Support Scams – which convince victims to pay for non-existent problems with their computers.

IRS Imposter Scams – which defraud victims by posing as IRS agents and claiming that victims owe back taxes.

Sham Business Opportunities – which convince victims to invest in lucrative business opportunities or investments.

Below are some tips shared with participants during the seminar on how to avoid falling victim to a financial scam:

♦ Don’t share personal information with anyone you don’t know.
♦ Don’t pay a fee for a prize or lottery winning.
♦ Don’t click on pop-up ads or messages.
♦ Delete phishing emails and ignore harassing phone calls.
♦ Don’t send gift cards, checks, money orders, wire money, or give your bank account information to a stranger.
♦ Don’t fall for a high-pressure sales pitch or a lucrative business deal.
♦ If a scammer approaches you, take the time to talk to a friend or family member.
♦ Keep in mind that if you send money once, you’ll be a target for life.
♦ Remember, it’s not rude to say, “NO.”
♦ A good rule of thumb is, if it’s too good to be true, it’s likely a scam.

To report elder fraud please call the Justice Department’s Elder Fraud Hotline at 1-833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311). If you believe you are the victim of an online scam call the FBI and file a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov or contact local law enforcement.