Experts urge consumers to watch out for scams this holiday season

By: Brendan Losinski | Metro | Published December 15, 2023

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METRO DETROIT — December may be the most wonderful time of the year, but the Christmas season provides ample opportunities for scammers to try to take advantage of someone’s generosity or tight schedule to swindle them out of money.

Law enforcement agencies and watchdog groups are offering advice on what the public should be on the lookout for this holiday season.

“We had posted stuff on the department Facebook. We had some generic advice,” said Detective Carlo Pizzorni of the Troy police. “There are IRS scams, which are something we’ve seen, people call claiming to be from the IRS and demand to be paid via bitcoin or gift card. There’s a similar scam where people are calling claiming there’s a warrant out for their arrest and they need to pay bail to stay out of prison.”

He also warned that some scammers are patient and can cultivate a relationship with someone online for weeks or months before taking advantage of their mark.

“There’s also ‘pig butchering.’ Someone meets someone else through an online app like WhatsApp or Telegram or a dating website, and they create a relationship, speak to them for months on end to convince them the relationship is real,” Pizzorni said. “Eventually, they suggest an investment via wire transfer or cryptocurrency. They send confirmations that the investment is making money (and) convince them to keep investing more, but eventually they will cut contact with all of this money they were sent.”

Lisa Plaggemier, the executive director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance, said the most prevalent scams are deceptive ads that lead people to fraudulent websites, sending gift cards to fraudsters posing as friends or family members, and spoofed shopping sites that mimic legitimate businesses in order to collect personal information or distribute malware.

“I think it’s kind of the ‘greatest hits’ of things that the bad guys gravitate toward every year,” she explained. “They’ve just gotten a lot more sophisticated. We all look at how we’re using AI and technology, but they’re using them as well. … It’s more about better quality scams than new scams. The tactics are the same, but it’s all still phishing and spoofing and so forth. It’s all about scrutinizing what you’re seeing. Look at the sender address. Look at the address. If a company or group has had a leak and someone else has gotten access, they can use that breach to attack others. People need to slow down and analyze.”

Those offering items at a large discount online are frequently suspect.

“With the economy the way it is and inflation, people are looking for items at a good price,” said Plaggemier. “Oftentimes, you will see a deal that is too good to be true, and that’s because it’s a case of fraud.”

She said fake gift cards and phony delivery notifications for online orders are also scams that are on the rise.

“The other big one is gift card scams. When you buy gift cards, buy it at that retailer. If you want a Target gift card, don’t buy it at the supermarket. Buy it at Target itself,” said Plaggemier. “Fake delivery notifications are another big one, especially during the holidays. A phisher sends you a text or email that a package will be delivered, like you would get from another internet retailer, but the link for the tracking information leads you to a malicious website. The message may indicate urgency, like you need to be home for a package to be delivered. You might click on something quickly without determining whether it’s legitimate.”

She advised to always be suspicious of any site or ad online.

“Looking for the https,” as opposed to http, “which generally indicates it’s legitimate,” Plaggemier said. “Look for misspellings in a website address. It might have a hyphen between the company name you’re looking for and some additional part of the URL. Hover over a link in an email to see where it will actually take you. This is more difficult on a phone, but don’t take chances. Watch for misspellings. Foreign scammers often have misspellings, but this is also the area where they’re growing more sophisticated since they are improving the quality of their scams.”

She said one of the most effective means of spotting a fraudster is for people to just follow their gut.

“If you get messages from someone you know, you can often tell if they don’t feel right,” said Plaggemier. “You can get a message from a family member directing you to a website or talking about a product that the real acquaintance just wouldn’t. … At the end of the day, if it doesn’t feel right, avoid it. Using your gut gets more and more important as the use of AI improves (what) can be used in scams.”

Plaggemier said that the best advice to avoid scams is to never feel rushed to go to a site; to be critical of any email, text, online ad or social media post; and to never be afraid to call a business or institution’s main number to check the legitimacy of a claim or offer.

“Instead of clicking on a link, if it doesn’t look right, go to that retailer’s site directly,” she said. “If you get a text from ‘Amazon’ with a link, just go to Amazon’s site directly in your browser. Stick with legitimate retailers you are familiar with. It’s very easy to put up a website that appears similar to a legitimate retailer. Double check spellings of URLs. If you type in a URL wrong, criminals will buy a domain that has the common typo that mimics the legitimate site.”

“For the most part, you need to only use verified websites,” added Pizzorni. “Don’t invest in cryptocurrency through someone you don’t personally know. If anyone tells you to deposit money at a bitcoin ATM or something similar, we advise them to call the body you think you need to send money to and speak to someone you know is legitimate. The old saying that, ‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,’ is very much something to live by.”

He also advised to be extra cautious around anyone reaching out claiming to be from law enforcement or a government agency online or over the phone.

“Any time a government agency is calling you, it’s probably fake,” Pizzorni said. “They tend to communicate through the mail. If you are contacted by a police department, call that department’s main line before you give out any information or money and speak to their dispatch to ensure they actually have someone attempting to contact you.”

Plaggemier’s final bit of advice was to make sure antivirus and antimalware software on any device is installed and up to date.

“If you do click on something malicious, it can keep a harmful malware program from getting downloaded,” Plaggemier said.

She added that, if anyone has been taken advantage of, immediately report it.

“We don’t see enough people reporting scams to, which is the FBI’s internet fraud center,” said Plaggemier. “It often seems like they don’t do anything, but they are working to shut these groups down. Report anything you see.”