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7 clever online shopping scams to avoid this holiday season

With the holidays approaching, there are a few things to keep in mind: gifts for your loved ones, good will toward others and, of course, scammers on the move. Click or tap here to see some of the most popular scams of the past years.

The holiday season is a playground for scammers and grifters, who prey on everyone’s eagerness to buy gifts. Historically, this has led to thousands of lost dollars — and nothing makes your holidays more of a humbug than an empty wallet and no gifts to show for it.

To light your way through the rest of the season, we’ve created a guide on some of the most sinister scams this year, as well as what you can do to protect yourself.

1. We wish you a merry phishmas

Cybercriminals are on the lookout for suckers all year round, and they pull absolutely zero punches during the holiday season.

Phishing schemes are commonly found in emails, which disguise their true intentions by pretending to be from trusted sources. For the holidays, the most common schemes take the form of fake Amazon and Apple emails that claim your account has been disabled. They provide a link so you can “reset your password.”

Opening these emails and clicking the links will take you to a website that looks like the real thing, but once you enter your username and password, your information is in the hands of hackers.

To stay safe from phishing emails, always check the complete email address of the sender, and never open any links you aren’t 100% sure about. Phishing email addresses may contain bits and pieces of real names like Amazon and Apple, but they’re usually much longer and more complex.

RELATED: Fake Black Friday apps and websites out in full force

To be clear: Apple and Amazon both go through great pains to avoid asking for your information directly. If you’re unsure whether an email is really from a retailer, give the company’s customer service line a call and speak to a real person.

They’ll be able to verify if your account has been accessed without your permission. Keep in mind any phone numbers a phishing email advises you to call are fake too, so use the numbers below:

Apple customer care: 1-800-275-2273

Amazon customer care: 1-888-280-4331

2. Emails bring (not so) good tidings

We aren’t done with emails yet. Another scam that makes use of your inbox include shipping notifications, which present themselves as Amazon, UPS or FedEx messages. These emails contain text about an issue with “your order,” and how you must verify your identity to save your item from being seized or canceled.

Naturally, these emails are total bunk. None of the major logistic services ever ask for this kind of information, nor will they cancel your order in such a short window of time.

Scammers are banking on the odds that one of their victims will have an in-progress order from one of these companies, and will answer out of fear of losing a critical gift. If you see an email from any of these companies with this kind of text, delete it, move on and whatever you do, don’t click any links inside.

These scams are starting to spread via text message as well. Following any links from an unknown text message poses just as much risk to your privacy. Any strange messages should be promptly deleted and ignored.

If you’re still not sure whether these messages are legitimate, give one of these customer service lines a call to verify. Make sure to have your tracking number and order information handy.

Amazon customer care: 1-888-280-4331

UPS customer care: 1-800-742-5877

FedEx customer care: 1-800-463-3339

3. ‘Bearing gift cards, we scam from afar.’

Gift cards are more than just useful, last-minute gifts for people on your list. Once a gift card is purchased, the funds are stuck on the card and become virtually untraceable. This is why scammers prefer to have their victims purchase gift cards. Once you buy them, your money is lost forever.

Gift card scams are typically part of other scams, but a common one that rolls around the holiday season involves cybercriminals pretending to be your boss. If you work for a major company, you may see scammers in your inbox pretending to be your CEO or HR manager putting together gifts for a “potluck.”

To bait you, scammers claim you need to purchase a certain amount in gift cards to be given away at a company party. But once the links are followed and the cards are purchased, you never hear back from your “boss” again.

To make it completely clear: anyone who asks you to pay for a gift card online is engaging in shady business. It’s an untraceable way to acquire and spend money, and because it’s untraceable, you can’t punish wrongdoers. Avoid this like the plague. Click or tap here for more information on gift card scams.

4. ‘Twas the night before Christmas, with so much at stake. There were coupons a’ plenty, but many were fake.

There’s a saying that always applies to the internet: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” This goes double for coupons and discounts, which are spammed across the web in advertisements, emails and social media profiles.

Another way hackers try to get information is by tricking people into signing up for coupon codes, discounts and sales using “exclusive memberships.” These links will usually lead back to sketchy third-party scam websites that siphon your information faster than you can say, “and to all, a good night!”

To make matters worse, many of these scammers are paying for promoted ads on social media and search engines, which can add an air of legitimacy to the scheme.

Instead of hunting around the dark corners of the web for savings, consider using a trusted app like Honey, which automatically scans and applies coupon codes from verified retailers. Click or tap here to learn more about the Honey app.

5. Come all ye Facebook

As we mentioned above, social media is a breeding ground for scams — especially when anybody can shell out a few dollars to buy fraudulent ads. Facebook is ground zero for many of these breaking scams, and users ought to pay close attention when any promos or ads seem too good to be true.

The biggest red flag for a scam attack comes in the form of direct messages from Facebook marketplace merchants. When a professional con artist is able to talk with you directly, they can deploy all their social engineering skills to trick you into paying them or giving them information.

Unless the seller is verified with many legitimate reviews, it’s best to avoid talking to them directly, so focus on the merchandise.

Another way to keep yourself safe when shopping on Facebook is to avoid using your real credit card — stick to a safe payment method instead. Click or tap here to learn about PayPal and other safer ways to pay.

6. You better watch out… for counterfeit goods

Anyone with kids knows how this one goes. Let’s say your child loves action figures, and while browsing on eBay, you find the perfect gift for less than half the retail price. You snap it up, hoping it’ll arrive before Christmas. If it does at all, don’t be surprised if the goods are completely fake.

For mass-produced products like toys and game consoles, major marketplaces like Amazon and eBay are breeding grounds for cheap knockoffs. Many of these sellers get away with their shady business by hiding the fact that they’re replicas or third party deep in the product description.

To stay safe, always check the photos against common stock images. If the same image is found in multiple listings, there’s a good chance it’s phony. Additionally, many of these fraudsters base their operations out of China, where factories pump out knockoffs almost constantly.

When buying from a seller in China, always check the reviews to make sure the seller is legitimate, and keep an eye out for the keywords “replica” or “third party” in the product listing.

Using PayPal to pay will also give you some recourse, so avoid paying with your credit or debit card online if you can help it.

7. Ho-ho-ho-verpriced

This scam involves many major retailers and merchants both on and offline. For many, this isn’t even so much a scam as it is “business,” but here’s what you need to be aware of when it comes to price inflation.

A common sales tactic is to jack up the prices of goods before a major event like Black Friday, which serves the purpose of making the discounts look bigger than they really are. What’s more, some will even promote the increased prices as deals, which trick many eager shoppers into buying before the real savings start.

If you can help it, resist the temptation to shop too early before official Black Friday deals are live. Always check the prices against multiple stores, and check if the retailer you’re interested in has a price matching policy that can net you even more savings.

Alternatively, you can view our Black Friday Guides to see some of the hottest deals of the season from your favorite online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

Click or tap here to see Amazon’s Black Friday Deals.

Click or tap here to see Best Buy, Walmar, and Target’s best Black Friday offers.

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