October 14, 2020

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection Warns: The Holidays Bring More than Festive Times ... They Also Bring Scammers

The holidays are approaching. While the COVID-19 health crisis fueled a lot of new twists on old scams, the holidays are sure to bring out the criminals. Just like snow, decorations, cookies baking and gifts, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) is warning that additional traditions sure to be around for the holidays are scams.

With gift purchasing starting earlier than ever, OCP wants consumers to be alert that deals regarding online shopping, gift cards and charitable solicitations may not be as honest as they appear.

“The biggest problem consumers are facing this holiday season is that, as companies legitimately try to make their operations more secure—and tout that they are doing it—the criminals have also upped their games and seem just as legitimate,” said Montgomery’s OCP Director Eric Friedman. “The first steps for every resident are to start out being cautious, and mix that with a bit of suspicion.”

Among things in residents should approach carefully this holiday season are the following:

Online Shopping: According to the Federal Trade Commission, it is safest to pay for items by credit card whenever possible. This provides extra protections for most online purchases. Credit cards also provide dispute procedures and benefits for returns or exchanges. Debit cards, even those with Visa or Mastercard logos, do not provide the same protections and dispute procedures as credit cards.

If shopping on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Letgo or other third-party marketplaces, be aware that scammers are using stock photos, or photos from other real transactions, to sell non-existent goods and even rentals. When looking to buy an item, if the deal sounds too good to be true, and there are no photos to see before sending a digital payment or paying with a gift card, that is a sign that you may be dealing with a scam. If you are the seller, the scammer may want to pay by check and for a larger amount than you seek. This is usually done with a need to have you write a good check to refund the difference on a bad one. That is a hallmark of check fraud scams.

This year has already seen an uptick in fake retail websites selling non-existent goods—many using Shopify as their platform and advertising on social media. These merchants either sell counterfeit goods or have no goods to sell. They may send you empty envelopes for proof of delivery to combat chargebacks or disputes through your bank. According to Forbes, one hallmark of the scam is finding the same ad, pictures and deals with numerous different companies with odd-sounding names (such as Predictfuture) selling the same exercise equipment at the same cut-rate as Geoghost.store.

Gift Cards: The cards make great and easy gifts, but they also are a favorite of criminals who know gift cards are virtually untraceable. If someone contacts you about unpaid bills and demands payment via a gift or prepaid card, or even a wire transfer, that is a red flag that a scam is afoot. When buying gift cards, make sure the packaging has not been compromised. Do not buy gift cards that have packaging showing the bar code on the back. According to an AARP survey reported by CNBC, one out of five consumers say that the gift cards they received were empty. Criminals will record and register the numbers of empty gift cards, await notification of activation and quickly drain the value of the card—sometimes before it is even presented as a gift. CNBC also reports that gift cards sold through online auction sites are often stolen.

Donations: Charities and charitable drives increase during the holiday season. Before donating to a charity, make sure it is registered with the Maryland Secretary of State. Then research the organization to make sure it uses the money received for the work and not to hire call centers to get more money. Websites such as Charity Navigator, Guidestar, Charity Watch and Give.org are good places to search in checking the honesty of many alleged charitable organizations.

For more information about this or other consumer questions, contact the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at consumer@montgomerycountymd.gov or visit www.montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP.