The holidays are fast approaching and almost everyone is booking time off work to rest and recharge — except scammers. In December, they log more overtime than warehouse workers scrambling to meet holiday delivery deadlines.

After all, people are busy, distracted, and tired. Those are the perfect conditions for most people to fall for scams they'd ordinarily be able to spot a mile away.

So, what can you do to avoid falling for a holiday scam? It's important to be aware of the strategies holiday scammers will use to try and trick you. We've outlined the most popular holiday scams, how to spot them and what to do to avoid being taken in. Consider it our gift to you.

Types of holiday scams to avoid

Knowledge is power. When it comes to scams, knowledge could also be the difference between spending your holiday on the phone with the credit bureau and actually enjoying your break.

Delivery scams

Typically, delivery scams start with a text, email or phone call saying that there are difficulties in delivering your package. Sometimes, they tell you that you owe duty on something you've ordered from overseas and ask you to click on a link to finalize payment. People are more likely to fall for delivery scams over the holidays because it’s difficult to keep track of all the packages they're expecting and which companies are shipping them.

The scam

Delivery scams fall into three categories: those that spoof (impersonate) well-known shipping companies by creating a mirror-image of the real sites, those that change the name of a well-known shipping company slightly (think Purolator or FedEx), and those that create an entirely new, fraudulent shipping company.

These holiday scammers rely on you panicking that one of your gifts won't arrive in time. They'll ask you to click a link to either input your personal information, pay a customs or delivery fee, or install malware (malicious software) on your device to steal your information.

How to tell

Delivery scams can be hard to decode as fraudster make fake websites and emails which often look legitimate. Because of this scam's popularity, you should always assume that a delivery-based email or text is a scam until proven otherwise.  To help you decipher scam messages from real ones, keep a list of all the packages you're expecting, their tracking numbers and the companies shipping them. If you're in doubt, check the message against your list. Always log in directly to the online retail store from which you purchased your item to check the delivery status or double check with the shipping company.

Here's what to look for:

  • The website URL starts with “http” instead of “https” (the “s” stands for secure) and does not display a tiny padlock icon in the address bar
  • On emails, check the domain of the sender. If it's not coming from the right domain, it's a scam.
  • Texts from companies you've never given your phone number to.
  • Unexpected charges.
  • Urgent messages telling you to act now.
  • Requests to update your delivery and payment preferences.
  • Voicemails with a call-back number that doesn't match the shipper's service number.
  • Call back numbers with an 809-area code or 10 digit international number.
  • A phone operator asking you to verify your account information or credit card number.
  • A link that doesn't clearly show the domain it's sending you to.
  • Certificate errors or lack of online security protocols.
  • Missing company information, including address or phone number or missing website elements, like privacy and customer services details.
  • Spelling mistakes and bad grammar.

Gift card scams

Who doesn't love a gift card? You can use them to buy anything you want rather than having to pretend you liked that hideous sweater one of your relatives bought you. Unfortunately, scammers like gift cards, too, because they are less protected from fraud than bank cards, e-transfers or other types of payments.

The scam

Typically, gift card scams involve someone calling or texting you with an emergency. They may claim to be from a government agency or tech support, or they may pretend to be a family, friend, or colleague in need of money right away.

Someone might tell you that you've won a prize, or your utilities will be cut off if you don't pay them immediately. But for some odd reason, these people desperately need you to send them gift card PIN numbers.

Holiday versions of this might include charities telling you that's how they'd prefer you to donate or a family member calling to ask you to buy them gift cards so they can get home for the holidays. People might also try to sell you used gift cards or a "friend" might call and ask you to buy a card and promise they'll pay you back.

How to tell

This scam is an easy one to detect. If anyone tells you that they need you to pay them in gift cards or need you to urgently send them gift cards, you're likely being scammed. As great as gift cards are, very few real emergencies require you to urgently send one to someone.

Here's what to look for:

  • Phone calls from someone who doesn't immediately identify themselves but says, "it's me."
  • An incomprehensible need for gift cards.
  • Requests from companies and government agencies that never otherwise accept gift card as a method of payment.
  • A request that you buy the cards at multiple, different stores.
  • Spelling mistakes, bad grammar or broken English.
  • Urgent messages telling you to act now

One last thing: When you buy a gift card, check that the protective sticker is still on the card and hasn't been tampered with.

Invoice scams

If someone tells you that you owe them money, you likely want to pay them quickly. After all, it's the holidays and the end of the year – everyone, even large companies have bills to pay. This is exactly why invoice scams become increasingly popular during the holidays.

While they take advantage of people who just want to pay their bills, fraudsters also prey on people who are stretched financially and will frantically click on a link in an invoice email if they don't recognize the charge or if the charge seems abnormally high.

The scam

Invoice fraud works in two main ways, either by tricking people who don't owe money to pay or to confuse people who do owe money to click on a malicious link in an email for payment information. If you give them your payment information, they'll steal your credit card number.

If you click on a link, you could have malware downloaded to your computer or be prompted to enter your login credentials or credit card details. By providing your login credentials, you may inadvertently give scammers access to your stored personal information, like credit card details or your address. 

How to tell

Fake invoice scams can be difficult to recognize. If you're purchasing a lot of gifts, you might think it's an invoice for one of them. You might also recognize it's wrong and click on the link, hoping to correct it before realizing it's a scam.

Here's what to look for:

  • Unusual requests or dollar values you don’t remember spending.
  • Invoices for items or services you didn't purchase.
  • Suspicious links, especially those requiring you to click a link to view an invoice.
  • An invoice from a company you've never done business with.
  • On emails, check the domain of the sender. If it's not coming from the right domain, it's a scam.
  • Links go to an illegitimate or misspelled URL.
  • Request for an odd payment method like gift cards.
  • The website URL starts with “http” instead of “https” (the “s” stands for secure) and does not display a tiny padlock icon in the address bar
  • Spelling mistakes, bad grammar or broken English.
  • Urgent messages telling you to act now.

Other holiday scams

While those are some of the most common holiday scams, here are some other holiday scams to look out for:

Fake website scams: These holiday scams involve websites created to spoof (impersonate) other websites, websites for fake companies, websites that sell knockoff products, or websites offering significant discounts on hot gift items.

Travel scams: These start with texts, emails or phone calls offering free flights or massive discounts on holiday travel. Sometimes they look like they're coming from legitimate hotels, airlines or other travel-related businesses. They're hoping you'll give them your credit card information or click on a link to load malware onto your computer. If you get a travel offer that seems too good to be true, don't click on the link before you check the domain of the sender or go directly to the company's site.

Charity scams: These are texts, emails, phone calls or letters from people claiming to be from legitimate charities. Unfortunately, they're trying to get your credit card details not to do good in the world. Never give money to someone that calls you and never follow a link to a website to make a donation. Either call the organization or navigate to the website on your own.

Peer-to-peer payment request scams: These are requests for money from friends and family saying they're struggling financially and sharing links to third party payment platforms, their email to send an e-transfer, or a link to their fundraiser. Always make sure to connect with your friend or family member directly before sending any money.

What to do if you fall for a holiday scam?

  • Being tricked by holiday scammers isn't fun. But you're not powerless if you get fooled. Here's what to do:
  • Call your credit card issuer or other payment processor and tell them about the fraudulent charges. Many companies can reverse the transactions.
  • Ask your card issuer or processor to cancel your credit card or put a hold on your account.
  • Immediately change any login information for online accounts that you might have inadvertently given scammers access to.
  • Run a malware and virus scanner on your computer.
  • Report the scam to local police, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Center or the Competition Bureau.

Realize it could happen to anyone

While you might be tempted to feel ashamed if you get tricked by scammers during the holidays , it's important to know that anyone can fall for a holiday scam. When you're busy decorating and preparing for the holidays, it's easy to overlook red flags or click on a link you shouldn't.

Knowing the signs of a holiday scam can help you spot them — even when you're stressed or in a hurry. With this info, you're more likely to dodge scammers attempts to separate you from your money and spend the rest of your holiday building snowmen or drinking hot cocoa instead.

Have you been scammed?