With the festive holidays approaching, shops feverishly publicize their best deals for Christmas. But you can’t let supposed bargains go to your head. Companies rely on this momentary weakness—and so do cybercriminals.
Can you spot a Black Friday scam? How do you know if an online store is legit? How can you avoid fake sales? Here’s what to look out for this Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
1. Bait and Switch: Online and In-Store Variants
You might be tempted to enter competitions to fill the void left in your bank balance after the festivities. But free items can sometimes be a scam. These typically come in the form of “bait and switch” fraud. Cybercriminals dangle expensive items in front of your eyes, and ask you to enter a draw where a number of lucky participants win, for example, a new iPhone.
To be in with a chance of winning, you need to enter a few personal details and fill out a survey. Scammers can use this to collect sensitive data or benefit from a pay-per-click scheme.
Never enter private details on sites you don’t trust.
Only use sites you’ve used before or that have been personally recommended to you by family or friends. Check complaint sites to see what others say.
You rely on certain companies throughout the rest of the year. It’s churlish not to use them again in the run-up to Christmas. However, we can be tempted away if a more obscure site offers something unique and/or limited.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use smaller names, but shop around. Businesses with exclusive products might sell stock through eBay, Etsy, or as a third-party seller on Amazon.
Don’t be paranoid about this. Most sites are honest and only want to give you a good service. Just remember to check for signs of encryption (like an SSL certificate, i.e. the padlock sign by your URL) and pay using a credit card and/or PayPal.
Bricks-and-mortar stores may also use the “bait and switch” method.
Instead of collating private information, they advertise a product that’s out of stock. They then console you by offering an inferior product; sometimes, however, they show you a more expensive item. Either way, they used an unavailable product to tempt you into shopping there.
2. Beware Cards Bearing “Gifts”
Similarly, you might enter a lucky dip to win a loaded gift card from a major online shop or supermarket. If you’re lucky, it could help buy the Christmas turkey and all the trimmings. And it’s worth clicking on a link if a friend recommended it to you, right?
However, cybercriminals use services like WhatsApp to promote giveaways, generally as a supposed campaign to coincide with new stores opening. They then ask you to click on a link which requires some contact details. You won’t suspect anything because the message purports to be from a friend.
But it’s fake. Your personal details will be collected, and your device could be infected with malware. It could also tap your address book to spread the scam to your contacts.
Even if you think it’s genuine, do your research. Type “Black Friday Walmart gift card scam” into Google and endless results will pop up.
Be immediately suspicious of any non-personalized messages. Confirm with your friend whether they sent it or not through another method. If this dubious message came through as an email, ask by SMS. If you think their instant messaging is compromised, ask them in person or phone them.
Don’t trust links—period. Because the email promising amazing deals could be malicious. Spotting a fraudulent email isn’t difficult, but can take some time. Rather than click links, you should instead delete emails and find the site yourself. Open another window or tab and search.
Amazon lists many of its Black Friday deals on its homepage in advance, so you can easily find the same bargains as those advertised in your email. Or not, as the case may be!
3. Fake Facebook Pages
A related scam has been perpetuated on social media for years, attempting to get more “likes” and shares. Facebook’s algorithm favors posts with the most interactions, so the scam reaches a wider audience. This is known as “like” farming.
Scammers promise free MacBooks, gift cards, and other Black Friday discounts. But once the message has reached enough profiles, the page or post changes, perhaps to a different product they can get serious cash from through a pay-per-click scheme.
Creators could sell the page and the information it’s collected too. Even Personally Identifiable Information (PII) like your address and birthday, can easily be sold on the dark web.
Fake pages could pose a further threat to passwords, usernames, and credit card information which may be stored for associated apps.
4. Delivery and Transaction Problems
If you’ve bought many gifts from numerous retailers, it can be tricky to keep track of your orders. Simply buying from Amazon might actually be through third-party sellers.
Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a well-known firm might email to tell you about a problem delivering a package. All you need to do is click on a link and arrange a suitable time.
Let’s reiterate: however authentic a message and its accompanying link appear, do not trust it.
An email might pretend to be FedEx, DHL, or UPS and ask you to open an attachment. Don’t download anything. You could be downloading ransomware, or a virus that tracks your activities.
A variation of this is a fraudulent email informing you that a company couldn’t deliver a package you sent, so you need to rearrange delivery or pay extra. Spoof emails might include order confirmations, refunds, and reminders about what’s on your Amazon Wishlist.
You could also receive an SMS asking you to click on a link to reschedule a failed parcel delivery or request a refund.
This is why it’s so important to keep track of your transactions. Don’t rely on orders filed under “My Account”. Keep physical records of invoices or order confirmations. If a dispute arises, you’ve got all the details you need—and it’s reassuring when you open your bank statement in January!
Some services use different trading names for debiting accounts. If you can find them, note down that additional name on the corresponding paperwork. PayPal, for instance, tells you clients’ trading names which will be credited on your statements. And remember that Amazon often displays as “INT’L” followed by a lengthy number.
Keep note of payments made in December, and you can cross-reference them at a later date.
5. You Don’t Receive Purchases
What if you’ve ordered something and it’s not arrived?
It could be a genuine issue. Hundreds of items get lost in the post and through private couriers, especially around Christmastime. Sadly, it could also be something more malicious. Either way, you need to contact the seller. They should have proof of postage. Citizens’ rights typically say that you don’t pay for anything you’ve not received.
The final responsibility lies with the retailer. So, if something doesn’t turn up, you shouldn’t be charged.
Scammers might insist you wait; it’s a simple delaying tactic. Go to the hosting site. If it’s a third-party seller through Amazon, you need to talk to Amazon itself. The same goes for auction sites.
The best way to prevent this is by paying through verified methods with money-back guarantees.
PayPal offers a Buyer Protection program. This reimburses you the item price plus postage fees if a product either doesn’t arrive or isn’t as described. Exceptions exist, but we doubt you’ll invest in real estate, ready for Christmas…
Credit card companies are jointly liable with the trader if there’s a problem with the product, so you’ve got an added safety net. You can generally rely on “chargeback”, although individual companies have their own terms and conditions, so make sure you check these before using a credit card.
Be understanding, but remember: by law, you should be offered a refund or replacement.
6. Check Returns Policies
In most cases, you have the right to take back items within 28 days of purchases. There are exceptions; nonetheless, that’s a good rule of thumb.
Around the festive period, many retailers (notably the bigger, reputable brands) expand their returns policies and offer gift receipts. However, not all do. Amazon extends its policy, so anything bought through them between November 1 and December 31 can be returned until midnight January 31.
It doesn’t include third parties, though. And this is the key thing about returns policies: you need to check individual retailers because specifics change.
You particularly need to be careful around auction sites. In some cases, sellers will include a shorter return period; others insist you pay for sending stuff back yourself.
Most worryingly, some don’t accept returns at all. If you get an item that’s fake, damaged, or simply unwanted, you can’t do much about it. However, we advise you report counterfeit goods to parent companies, like eBay.
The key here is to know your rights before purchasing.
7. Dubious Pricing Strategies
This isn’t a tactic employed by cybercriminals, but it’s nevertheless infuriating. It’s a sales technique used by most retailers. Stores display an RRP or high-end price point, but advertise a sale price. It looks like you’re getting a fantastic discount, solely for this limited time. After that, the price shoots back up… right?
Sadly, these offers aren’t always what they appear. They’re bumping the price up for effect, then lowering it again.
You’ll probably save a fair amount of cash in relation to the RRP. But it’s still an example of retailers forcing a purchase when a similar (or better) discount has been available during the year.
Amazon Wishlists track price points in relation to when you added them, not in accordance to average cost. You can’t filter them to show the biggest price-drops anymore, either.
You can save serious money by doing your Christmas shopping early, so why not set alerts for specific products? Festive items will likely be cheapest in the middle of summer, which doesn’t help you right now, but may next year.
That method’s not for everyone. Instead, use price trackers like CamelCamelCamel or Keepa to check whether a deal is as good as it looks. That’s one of the best ways to ensure your Black Friday deal really is a bargain.
Don’t Get Carried Away This Christmas
The bottom line is, don’t panic. Adrenaline pumps harder through our bodies when we spot a bargain. This is especially the case if there’s a limited quantity, or, as with auction sites, a countdown. Amazon uses both tactics in its flash deals.
Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.