LCI Blog: "THE 12 SCAMS OF CHRISTMAS" Steering Clear of the Latest Technology Scams this Holiday Season!

By Erin Hunt Moore, LCI Director

It’s difficult to believe, but here we are again: rapidly sprinting toward the final stretch of the holidays. And while we’re busy celebrating, last-minute shopping, circulating e-cards and e-vites during this season of sharing and giving, the hacker keyboards are heating up. Just this past week, our household was hit with a number of interesting ploys in the form of both emails and calls – from USPS deliveries needing confirmation (and personal information), to an automated voicemail from Bank of America indicating that an account had been compromised (requesting a call back and personal information), to an e-receipt from a major retailer for goods not purchased. Friends and colleagues have shared similar stories. With that in mind, I did a little research to get a handle on the top virus and scam threats and to learn what experts advise for protecting our personal information and computers. While updating my own malware protection, I found a helpful tips from McAfee via a blogger named Tech Paul (“Tech Tips, Tricks & Advice, written in plain English), highlighting some of the top scams of the season.

McAfee’s 12 Scams of Christmas

1. Mobile Malware: Malware targeted at mobile devices is on the rise, and Android smartphones are most at risk. McAfee cites a 76 percent increase in malware targeted at Android devices in the second quarter of 2011 over the first, making it the most targeted smartphone platform.

New malware has recently been found that targets QR codes, a digital barcode that consumers might scan with their smartphone to find good deals on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, or just to learn about Preparedness Techniques For Average Americans and products they want to buy.

2. Malicious Mobile Applications: These mobile apps are designed to steal information from smartphones, or send out expensive text messages without a user’s consent. Dangerous apps are usually offered for free, and masquerade as fun applications, such as games. For example, last year, 4.6 million Android smartphone users downloaded a suspicious wallpaper app that collected and transmitted user data to a site in China.

3. Phony Facebook Promotions and Contests: Who doesn’t want to win some free prizes or get a great deal around the holidays? Unfortunately, cyberscammers know that these are attractive lures and they have sprinkled Facebook with phony promotions and contests aimed at gathering personal information. A recent scam advertised two free airline tickets, but required participants to fill out multiple surveys requesting personal information.

4. Scareware, or Fake Antivirus software: Scareware is the fake antivirus software that tricks someone into believing that their computer is at risk—or already infected—so they agree to download and pay for phony software. This is one of the most common and dangerous Internet threats today, with an estimated one million victims falling for this scam each day. In October 2010, McAfee reported that scareware represented 23% of all dangerous Internet links, and it has been resurgent in recent months.

5. Holiday Screensavers: Bringing holiday cheer to your home or work PC sounds like a fun idea to get into the holiday spirit, but be careful. A recent search for a Santa screensaver that promises to let you “fly with Santa in 3D” is malicious. Holiday-themed ringtones and e-cards have been known to be malicious too.

6. Mac Malware: Until recently, Mac users felt pretty insulated from online security threats, since most were targeted at PCs. But with the growing popularity of Apple products, for both business and personal use, cybercriminals have designed a new wave of malware directed squarely at Mac users. According to McAfee LabsTM, as of late 2010, there were 5,000 pieces of malware targeting Macs, and this number is increasing by 10 percent month on month.

7. Holiday Phishing Scams: Phishing is the act of tricking consumers into revealing information or performing actions they wouldn’t normally do online using phony email or social media posts. Cyberscammers know that most people are busy around the holidays so they tailor their emails and social messages with holiday themes in the hopes of tricking recipients into revealing personal information.

  • A common holiday phishing scam is a phony notice from UPS, saying you have a package and need to fill out an attached form to get it delivered. The form may ask for personal or financial details that will go straight into the hands of the cyberscammer.
  • Banking phishing scams continue to be popular and the holiday season means consumers will be spending more money—and checking bank balances more often. From July to September of this year, McAfee Labs identified approximately 2,700 phishing URLs per day.
  • Smishing –SMS phishing—remains a concern. Scammers send their fake messages via a text alert to a phone, notifying an unsuspecting consumer that his bank account has been compromised. The cybercriminals then direct the consumer to call a phone number to get it re-activated—and collects the user’s personal information including Social Security number, address, and account details.

8. Online Coupon Scams: An estimated 63 percent of shoppers search for online coupons or deals when they purchase something on the Internet, and recent NRF data (October 19, 2011) shows that consumers are also using their smartphones (17.3 percent) and tablets (21.5 percent) to redeem those coupons. But watch out, because the scammers know that by offering an irresistible online coupon, they can get people to hand over some of their personal information.

  • One popular scam is to lure consumers with the hope on winning a “free” iPad. Consumers click on a “phishing” site, which can result in email spam and possibly dealing with identify theft.
  • Consumers are offered an online coupon code and once they agree, are asked to provide personal information, including credit-card details, passwords and other financial data.

9. Mystery Shopper Scams: Mystery shoppers are people who are hired to shop in a store and report back on the customer service. Sadly, scammers are now using this fun job to try to lure people into revealing personal and financial information. There have been reports of scammers sending text messages to victims, offering to pay them $50 an hour to be a mystery shopper, and instructing them to call a number if they are interested. Once the victim calls, they are asked for their personal information, including credit card and bank account numbers.

10. Hotel “Wrong Transaction” Malware Emails: Many people travel over the holidays, so it is no surprise that scammers have designed travel-related scams in the hopes of getting us to click on dangerous emails. In one recent example, a scammer sent out emails that appeared to be from a hotel, claiming that a “wrong transaction” had been discovered on the recipient’s credit card. It then asked them to fill out an attached refund form. Once opened, the attachment downloads malware onto their machine.

11. “It” Gift Scams: Every year there are hot holiday gifts, such as toys and gadgets, that sell out early in the season. When a gift is hot, not only do sellers mark up the price, but scammers will also start advertising these gifts on rogue websites and social networks, even if they don’t have them. So, consumers could wind up paying for an item and giving away credit card details only to receive nothing in return. Once the scammers have the personal financial details, there is little recourse.

12. “I’m away from home” Scammers: Posting information about a vacation on social networking sites could actually be dangerous. If someone is connected with people they don’t know on Facebook or other social networking sites, they could see their post and decide that it may be a good time to rob them. Furthermore, a quick online search can easily turn up their home address.

How to Protect Yourself

Internet users can protect themselves from cybercrime with the following quick tips:

  • Only download mobile apps from official app stores, such as iTunes and the Android Market, and read user reviews before downloading them.
  • Be extra vigilant when reviewing and responding to emails.
  • Watch out for too-good-to-be-true offers on social networks (like free airline tickets). Never agree to reveal your personal information just to participate in a promotion.
  • Don’t accept requests on social networks from people you don’t know in real life. Wait to post pictures and comments about your vacation until you’ve already returned home.

I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via email at [email protected]

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4 Comments

  1. tarah Reply

    Erin,

    Thank you for sharing these great tips on how to better protect ourselves from online hackers, scammers and no good doers.

    Let’s all have a safe and enjoyable holidays!
    Best,
    Tarah

  2. Donna Reply

    With the craziness of the holidays, who wants to deal with scams and the like!?! Thanks for the helpful guide on avoiding disaster.

  3. david Reply

    Erin – great post. One of the reasons I love my new i-Phone is because, according to them, Apple checks for all these scams and provides customers with the assurance that they won’t get these kinds of problems on the i-Phone. Perhaps time for you to give up your Blackberry? Cheers, David

  4. Jordana Reply

    Yikes! The holidays really can be a time for hackers and headaches. Hopefully we can avoid some with your tips. Thanks for sharing, Erin! Cheers, Jordana