Online Shoppers: Beware the 12 Scams of Christmas

Cyber crooks are out to make online shoppers miserable this holiday season. Here's what you should know.

By Katie Holliday

This story originally appeared on CNBC

Christmas may be the season for giving, but it also the season for scamming, according to internet security firm McAfee.

As more and more consumers now use their smartphones to help manage the demands of the holiday season, the risk of exposure to malicious software or malware, which enables cyber criminals to steal personal information, is higher than ever.

Here, we reveal the 12 most prevalent scams to help you be extra vigilant and keep your festive good mood intact this Christmas.

1. Not-so-merry mobile apps

The holiday season has prompted the launch of a whole range of fresh mobile applications, or 'apps,' designed to enhance the holiday shopping experience. But McAfee warns consumers to think twice before downloading; malicious software can masquerade as a trusted app, allowing cyber criminals to steal personal information and charge purchases to your accounts. Only update your apps by using an official, trusted app store to minimize this risk.

2. Holiday mobile SMS scams

Scammers obtain your mobile numbers from websites or forms people you might have innocently given your contact details too. One method is to target victims by sending texts promising "free" gifts or prizes, but consumers who click on the links could find themselves handing over sensitive information in exchange for the free gift, exposing them to credit card fraud and identity theft. Texters should also be careful that they don't find themselves unwittingly signed up to a premium rate texting service that racks up a hefty bill. Even worse, malware can even hide in the background watching your text messages for bank authorization codes to steal. Keep an eye on your bills for unusual text messaging charges.

3. Hot holiday gift scams

The old adage 'if it seems too good to be true it probably is' rings true when it comes to holiday scams. Beware of seemingly incredible deals on the latest tablet devices, game consoles, and other hot gadgets. If you click a link to enter a contest or get a great deal on a new device you could end up on a site that attempts to trick you into downloading malware or revealing your personal information. To avoid getting duped, McAfee experts recommend being suspicious of very low prices and online stores you've never heard of.

4. Seasonal travel scams

Travel is a big part of the holiday season for many people, and we often look for the best flights and hotel deals online. But cyber criminals are present here as well, working hard to trick you into giving up your credit card numbers and other private information. The same rule on holiday gift scams applies here, be wary of unrealistically low prices on vacations and stick to reputable sites.

5. Dangerous E-Season Greetings

Yes, you guessed it; even electronic greeting cards can contain malware that makes itself at home on your tablet, phone or computer when you click on e-card link. While most are safe and harmless, McAfee advises not opening the link unless you know the sender. You can also check the address that the e-card came from to verify it belongs to a legitimate, known greeting company.

6. Deceptive online games

Many people enjoy playing online and interactive games on their smartphones and tablets, but a seemingly harmless game can also be used by cyber criminals to lure you into downloading malware. While you're busy ridding the world of zombies, malware could be busy extracting your personal information. Game fans should check online reviews for warnings from less fortunate gamers and stick to well-known app stores.

7. Shopping notification shams

Cyber criminals know you'll get deliveries during the holidays, so they send out fake but realistic email messages with shipping verification requests, but filling out bogus forms can lead to account theft or identity fraud. Check the sender's email address to see if it's valid, look out for spelling and grammar mistakes – a trademark warning sign of a fake email – and bear in mind, most shippers will already have the information they need so won't need to ask for it again.

8. Bogus gift cards

Gift cards can be an attractive solution for buying gifts for hard-to-please friends or fussy relatives, but there are bogus ones around. The safest way to buy online is from an official retailer, not third party websites; otherwise you could end up with a red-faced friend trying to shop at the mall with a fake gift card!

9. Holiday 'SMiShing'

Most consumers are aware of email 'phishing' scams where cyber criminals masquerade as a trustworthy entity and attempt to extract user names, passwords and credit card details. But as mobile phones and tablets are become more popular, 'SMiShing' – or text message phishing – is now becoming just as dangerous. Most legitimate businesses would never ask you to provide personal details, passwords or other sensitive information in a text message. Instead of replying, contact the organization directly by phone.

10. Fake charities

The festive period can encourage many to think of those less fortunate than them, and can prompt generous donations to charities. Cyber criminals are ready to take advantage as always. Watch out for fake charities using copied texts and logos in emails or on websites, and check the sender's email address – some fake charity branding can look almost identical to authentic ones – so be vigilant.

11. Romance scams

Everyone wants someone special to share the holidays with, and online dating sites have become a popular way to meet people. But your prospective holiday romance might not be who he or she seems, and may in fact be a cybercriminal using photos, email and text messages to pretend to be another member of a dating website, with a real goal of luring you into visiting a site laden with malware. The best way to avoid this is to never click on links from anyone you don't already know and trust.

12. Phony E-tailers

Just as charities are subject to bogus imitations, so are legitimate retailers. Be careful before you hand over your credit card details, as a 'once-in-a-lifetime' special offer could turn into identity theft or an empty bank account. Check names and web addresses carefully for subtle differences that might indicate you are on a fake website and limit your online shopping to trusted e-tailers.

Katie Holliday
Katie Holliday is a Writer with, covering a range of topics including global macro-economic news, market developments and corporate news. Before joining CNBC, Katie was a senior asset management correspondent at Investment Week in London. Katie holds a Bachelor's degree in English Literature from Southampton University.

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