With the holidays fast approaching, millions of American households will be sending and receiving gifts, payments, and notes that often include personal data. Sadly, retail-related scams pick up steam during this period, as more swag and more money exchanges hands between late November and the end of the year.
One particular form of holiday shopping fraud comes in the form of shipping scams. It's no coincidence that fraudulent activity in the shipping sector happens around the holidays when traffic is at its heaviest. Consider United Parcel Service, which estimated it shipped 700 million packages during the 2016 holiday season—a 14% rise from the year before.
With all those packages in transit, the odds of being victimized by a shipping scammer who capitalizes on potential delivery confusion around the holidays grows exponentially. As a result, one job for holiday consumers is to identify potential forms of shipping scams and take direct action to prevent fraud from happening, whether on your front porch or your digital profile.
Here are the most pervasive—and dangerous holiday shipping scams:
1. Fake shipping notifications
This scheme involves package deliveries from UPS, Federal Express or other delivery services and has a number of different forms. "In one variation, you receive an email that looks quite official and may even carry the logo for UPS, Federal Express or some other courier service," explains Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., who teaches about white-collar crime at Bentley University.
The email then tells you that there is a package on the way, but you need to make delivery arrangements, Weisman states. "You then are instructed to either provide personal information, such as your credit card number or merely to click on a link," he says. "If you provide personal information, you've just turned over that information to an identity thief."
Plus, if you click on the link, you'll be downloading keystroke logging malware that will steal the information from your computer and use it to make you a victim of identity theft, Weisman adds. (See also: What to Do if You Are Infected with Malware)
2. Phone-based delivery scams
Another form of "fake shipping notification" fraud are phone-based scams. "Here, a notice of attempted delivery is left on your door with a telephone number for you to call and arrange for delivery of the package," says Weisman. "Once you call, the person answering requires you to provide personal information in order to confirm the order."
No delivery service needs any personal information from someone to whom they are delivering a package, Weisman notes. "If they ask for such information, you know it's a scam. Use common sense, too. Why would a delivery service need your Social Security number or credit card number if you are receiving a package?" (See also: 3 Steps to Take if Your Social Security Number Is Stolen)
3. Verification fee scams
In another shipping scam, you're told that you need to pay a small verification fee with a credit card. "However, the card processor that the delivery person uses is a skimmer that steals the personal information from your card to be used by the identity thief who leaves you a worthless package," says Weisman. "Never pay a verification fee for a delivery."
4. Email spam folder breaches
Data security experts and spam filters have done a relatively sufficient job in filtering out fake malware-laced Amazon, UPS, USPS, and FedEx shipping notification scams—but only to a point.
"Once email users start tooling around in their email spam folders, the phishing lures are just too tasty, and they are likely to get hooked," says Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert and chief executive officer at IDTheftSecurity.com. "That's why it's a good idea to always stay out of your email spam folder."
5. The "door-hanging" scam
Cyber-thieves use the busy holiday shipping season to steal personal information a number of ways, says Krista Fabregas, ecommerce analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com, in New York City. "For example, watch out for fake "we missed you, call us" package delivery door-hangers. That's a top way thieves will steal your personal information."
With door-hanging scams, your name, address and a company phone number will be on the note. Don't call the number — the scammers will try to pry your bank account or credit account number from you and ask you questions no credible business would ask.
6. Old-school holiday porch theft
Be on the lookout for package thieves stealing items off of your doorstep, adds Fabregas. "If you know something might be delivered when you're not there, a video surveillance doorbell like the Ring Video Doorbell alerts you when a delivery occurs and lets you keep an eye on parcels until you get home," she says. (See also: Staying Secure While Staying Connected.)
As security experts attest, the best protection against shipping scams comes from being diligent, using common sense and installing good security devices to help prevent shipping theft.
Focus on emails and phones to fight back against shipping scams
In this, the digital age, concentrating your efforts on potential email phone fraud can significantly reduce shipping fraud around the holidays.
"You can't trust any link in an email until you have confirmed that the email is legitimate," says Weisman. "If you're just not sure about a package notice emailed to you, call the delivery service at a number that you know is accurate to confirm whether or not the email was legitimate. Chances are high you'll discover the email was a scam." (See also: What Is Spear Phishing?)
"Remember, delivery services do not send emails to the people receiving packages," he adds. "They don't even know your email." Weisman advises the same "return contact" strategy for potentially bogus—and fraudulent—phone calls.
"Someone purporting to be a delivery service employee really is a problem, as you can never be sure whether someone really is who they say they are on the phone," he says. "The best tactic is to call the delivery company at a number that you know is accurate to confirm whether or not the call was legitimate."
Also, remember, no holiday delivery service ever needs your personal information such as credit card number, Social Security number or birth date. "Anytime anyone asks for that information on a phone call to you, you should just hang up," Weisman says.
Shipping scams are a real threat
It's unfortunate that Americans need to be on guard for fraud around the holidays, and can't fully trust that a delivery is just that—a delivery.
"Fraud and general retail growth each increased substantially during the 2016 holiday season," according to a 2016 study by ACI Universal Payments. Fraud attempts increased by 31%, while the number of overall transactions increased by 16%.
The fact is, shipping scams are a legitimate threat that are specifically designed to separate you from your personal data, and ultimately, your money. Don't let that happen to you this holiday season. If you fraudsters you're on the ball, chances are they'll avoid your home—and your identity—next holiday season.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on November 20, 2017, and has been updated.