Consumer advocates are warning shoppers to be especially wary during the holidays, which spawn a slew of seasonal complaints about naughty scammers.
During the Christmas and Hanukkah shopping season, more than any other time of the year, consumer watchdogs say it’s good to keep in mind the adage: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
The expansion of of online shopping has exacerbated the problem, said Cinthya Lavin, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau in South Florida. Online shopping can be far more convenient. But it’s also a lot more risky.
“We ask consumers to be very cautious of the online retailers when purchasing big-ticket items,” Lavin said. “Some websites set up for the holiday season offering to sell items at a lower cost. The buyer makes the purchase, but never receives the item.”
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Lavin recommends shoppers favor well-established, reputable retailers with a long history of consumer satisfaction. The lesser-known sites may offer better prices. But they carry a greater risk of being scammed.
“A huge discount, and a company you’ve never heard of — those can be red flags,” said Whitney Ray, a spokesman in Tallahassee for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
The risk isn’t confined to bogus companies that take your money, and provide nothing in return. Websites — especially those that find you, rather than vice versa — can also be vehicles for accessing consumers’ financial data or identities.
During the holidays, consumers may see advertisements for 60-inch, high-definition televisions selling for as little as $250, Ray said. If the offer is not from Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target or another well-established retailer, consumers ought to be skeptical, he said.
“It’s always best to do your due diligence, and to be protective of your financial information,” Ray said. Online retailers “can be a helpful thing to save time. Just make sure you are protecting your information.”
This season, shoppers seeking hoverboards for their children often have been left with a bag of coal. The Better Business Bureau has received about 600 complaints in the past three weeks alone involving two retailers in Miami that are offering wildly under-priced hoverboards. For the most part, Lavin said, consumers’ credit cards are charged immediately — but the merchandise never arrives.
The consumer watchdog has been unable to reach the two companies, one of which listed its address in a residential neighborhood, Lavin said. The companies “can set up shop anywhere.”
The BBB collects complaints about sketchy businesses through its website in a program called “Scam Tracker.”
In a complaint to the BBB dated Dec. 1, one woman, identified as Stephanie W., said she started calling and emailing one of the hoverboard companies two weeks after she was charged for the purchase. She finally got an email saying her purchase would arrive via FedEx the next day, and she stayed home to receive the package. “They never showed. I have attempted to reach out via phone and email since with no response,” the woman wrote.
“Here we are a few weeks away from Christmas and I have no product but these people have over $400 of my money,” she wrote.
Another woman said the hoverboard she ordered was, in fact, delivered — after “numerous” calls and emails, most of which went unreturned. But the device was defective. “There was a Post-It note on the hoverboard that said, ‘will not turn off.’ And, sure enough, it will not turn off,” Tina K. wrote to the BBB.
One common holiday scam is particularly cruel, and it targets elders. Consumer watchdogs call them “emergency scams” or “grandparent scams.” In the scheme, someone posing as a relative claims to be stranded while trying to get home in time for the holidays. They ask the elder to send them money.
“We always advise that you check with other family members to see if it’s true,” Lavin said. “Never wire money. Usually, when we have people wiring money without verifying it, they end up losing that money.”
The Attorney General’s Office also warns consumers to avoid so-called “charity scams” — frauds that exploit a person’s desire to give. Watchdogs recommend vetting charities before giving.
“This wonderful time of year is the season for giving, and whether we are shopping for gifts or donating to a charity, there are simple steps Floridians can take to safeguard against scams during the holidays,” Bondi said in a statement.
The Attorney General’s Office has prepared a Holiday Shopping Guide for consumers seeking to protect themselves from abuse.
The 12 scams of Christmas
1. Lookalike websites
2. Fake shopping notifications
4. Letters from Santa
5. Grandparents scam
6. Phony charities
7. Temporary holiday jobs
8. Unusual forms of payment
9. Free gift cards
10. Social media gift exchange
11. Puppy scams
12. Fake coupons