Over the festive period, the chances are you’ll be spending a little more money more than usual. But are you doing it safely? We take a look at how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud this Christmas.
"If an offer or promotion sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Leave it well alone."
Fraudsters are out in force at this time of year, targeting us while we shop for Christmas presents and prepare for the festive break. And, as scammers become ever-more sophisticated, recognising fraud is becoming harder. Whether we’re shopping in store or buying online, there are scams designed to fool the smartest of us into parting with our cash or handing over card details. A couple of years ago, one man lost a shocking £86,000 trying to buy a boat on eBay: it’s not surprising nearly a third of us are worried about becoming a victim of fraud.
A report from Action Fraud revealed that in 2016, victims lost nearly £16 million to Christmas shopping fraudsters. Its research showed that 65% of crimes at Christmas were linked to online auctions sites, with the average loss coming in at £727.
It shows that mobiles phones were the item people were most likely to buy from fraudsters, with clothing and accessories second on the list. Watches are now more commonly offered by fraudsters and have overtaken jewellery in the league table of the items criminals use to target their victims.
Staying safe in shops and restaurants
When you’re paying in person, the first rule is to cover your PIN. The second is never to let your card out of your sight: this is a prime opportunity for fraudsters to skim your details. This should be fairly easy to avoid with many of us choosing to go contactless.
However, in bars and restaurants, it’s common to hand your card over to waitstaff when it’s time to pay. Best practice in the hospitality industry is to bring the card machine to you, if they can’t, it's best to accompany them to the counter. And when setting up a tab, see if you can leave another form of ID. If not, consider paying as you go, you’ll probably find you spend less money this way too.
Shopping safe online
Always shop on sites with a secure connection. Look out for a padlock in the address bar, and make sure the URL begins with https (not http). These all mean the site has been verified as genuine, so you know you’re safe. But even on a verified website, if you’re using a shared computer, it's best not to tick ‘remember my details’ if you’re logging into any websites.
Bearing in mind the high number of frauds perpetrated on online auction sites, always use methods like PayPal when buying on these sites and never transfer money to someone you don’t know.
If you’re buying tickets, make sure that you’re buying from official sources, and don’t pay by direct money transfer.
In addition, consider what details you share when using an unsecured Wi-Fi network as any information you transmit – such as your card details – can be seen. And, although you might feel safe at home, if you don’t have a password on your Wi-Fi you could be opening up your network to anyone who happens to be within range. In the same way as you would always have reputable anti-virus software for your laptop or computer, make sure that the software on your phone is up to date. Manufacturers add design features into software updates, but they also add patches to protect you from the latest viruses and spyware.
Action Fraud’s advice is to slow down. Christmas is a busy time of year and criminals exploit our desire to tick those presents off the list by completing transactions quickly.
Email and SMS scams
Email and SMS are frequently the target of phishing or smishing. This is when you receive a message from a store or business – more than likely one that you know or may even have an account with – asking you to verify your details or check suspicious activity on your account. They’re often designed to instil a sense of urgency, encouraging you to click through to a page that looks similar – or sometimes almost identical – to the real one. They then ask you to enter login or bank card information which they use to defraud you.
Other scams may include random offers, promotions and competitions. Again, there is often a sense of urgency to encourage you to take action.
To make sure you stay safe, here are a few rules to follow:
- Never supply your password, personal details or PIN over email or SMS. And your bank will never ask you to transfer money to protect it. If you’re asked for any of this, contact your bank or building society separately to let them know.
- Always click on the ‘from’ field on the email. If it's not the email address you’d expect from that company, it's unlikely to be from them. Most companies have email addresses which you can report phishing emails to, simply forward the email to their phishing@... email address. Reporting fraud is an important part of protecting yourself and others against it.
- Does an email or text seem as though it’s coming from a reputable institution yet has ended up in your spam folder? Perhaps something about it just doesn’t ring true? Fraudsters are getting smarter and their communications may look similar to the real thing. If you’re in any doubt, contact your financial institution separately – and don’t click on any links or open any attachments.
- Does the message use your real name? A genuine contact from your bank or building society will always address you by your first name or your chosen salutation and will always feature either your partial postcode or account number. If it starts with something less personal, such as ‘Dear valued customer’, it may be a scam.
- If an offer or promotion sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Leave it well alone.
Much like phishing, vishing is when a fraudster calls or leaves a voicemail pretending to be from a reputable company – such as a bank – encouraging you to reveal personal information, often to verify purchases or for urgent security reasons. They may even try to prove their legitimacy by sending you to a website rather than getting you to confirm details over the phone.
You should never disclose any part of your PIN, online banking login details or passwords, and your bank will never ask you to use your Business Authentication app to authorise payments over the phone or to transfer money.
Beware the too-good-to-be-true deals
As this is an expensive time of year, finding a good deal can feel like a bonus. However, if you’re seeing anything from gift cards to goods or even holidays at unusually low prices, they might well be fakes.
Where did you see the offer? Social media scams are increasingly common – using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and even WhatsApp. Always check the prices against other sources, and follow our instructions for shopping safely online.
According to Action Fraud, holidaymakers lost £7.2 million in booking scams last year. When looking for a bargain getaway, always make sure the company is a member of ABTA. Be wary of companies which will only let you make payment by bank transfer. While there are legitimate holiday lets which only take payment by bank transfer, ask about paying a deposit in advance and the rest at the end of your holiday for example. If they get pushy, walk away.
Earlier this year, The Independent reported that fake versions of Royal Mail’s ‘something for you’ cards had been posted through letterboxes. Every year, there are delivery scams in operation. Before calling a delivery company, double check their contact details with those on their website: scammers make their money from making you call a premium rate number. And never provide any outstanding payment unless you can guarantee their authenticity. Contact the company you’ve ordered a package from to find out the status of your item or the delivery company they use if you’re unsure.
Check your bank statement frequently
As with any other time of the year, make sure you check your bank statement regularly, ideally at least once a week. Online or mobile banking is the quickest and easiest way to spot any suspicious activity on your account. Often fraudsters will take payment for very small amounts, banking on the fact that you may not miss a few pennies or pounds but this gives them access to your account to make larger payments at a later date.
If you do notice something, contact your bank’s fraud prevention centre immediately: you may need to have your card frozen or cancelled but cancelling your card is the only way to ensure your money is safe.
The average UK household spends an extra £500 in December. So, although it takes a bit of vigilance, staying aware of potential scams pays off: no one wants to have their account blocked in the middle of the pre-Christmas rush. However, if something does happen, contact your bank immediately. Even if you fear you’ve made a mistake or clicked on an unsecure link, there’s no need to be embarrassed. Scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated; being a victim of fraud could happen to anyone.
Have a secure and happy Christmas
While fraud is becoming more common, you can do everything possible to avoid being a victim if you stay vigilant and follow the steps outlined above. So, have a happy Christmas and New Year and don’t let fraud spoil your festive season.
For more information about fraud and current scams, and how to protect yourself, visit Take Five.