NEWARK – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division of Consumer Affairs are warning consumers to be on the lookout for new scams and a slew of cyber-attacks targeting shoppers as the holiday shopping season kicks off, primarily online.
According to a National Retail Federation survey, more than 60% of consumers plan to complete the majority of their holiday purchases online, up from 56% last year and the highest in the survey’s 17-year history. The surge creates a perfect storm for hackers who seek to gain access to consumers’ personal information.
Phishing, impersonation scams, fraudulent sites and malware attacks are among the most common tools used by scammers to prey on shoppers. These schemes are designed to steal financial information by convincing distracted bargain hunters to share their personal information or provide access to their electronic devices.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and Black Friday combination is like the Super Bowl for cyber criminals; they are good at the game and they’ve had time to practice and rehearse each play,” Grewal said in a release. “We urge New Jerseyans to stay informed and protect themselves from these attempts to score this holiday season.”
Shopping scams typically come via email, text message or phone call. Consumers may receive purported special offers or important messages about their account or purchase that require them to provide personal information or click on a link. While searching for deep discounts, consumers should be on the lookout for false advertising and unsecured sites. If products are advertised at an unusually low price that seems too good to be true, it probably is.
“Shoppers in New Jersey have rights and protections under the law, but internet fraud remains a growing threat, with scammers employing increasingly sophisticated tactics to take advantage of consumers,” said Paul Rodríguez, acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. “Cyber pirates are out in full force to steal the holiday cheer. Taking precautions, learning how to recognize threats, and monitoring accounts are steps shoppers can take to protect themselves this holiday shopping season.”
Whether consumers plan to shop online or in-store, following these precautions can help them spot potential fraud and shop safely:
Reputation and reviews: Do your homework and research brands or merchandise by typing the name and the words “scam,” “complaint” or “reviews” into a search engine. Take into consideration a company’s reputation and what others are saying about the quality of the product or service. Be suspect of any company with only positive reviews, as they could have been paid for or manipulated.
Pricing: Make sure you know the price of the item before getting in line for the register or putting the item in your online cart. New Jersey law requires merchants to clearly mark the price of items either on the items themselves or the display where the items are located.
Refund policies: Can you return an item for a full refund? Some stores have fairly strict rules about returns. Keep all your receipts and store tags on purchased items. For online purchases, save all your email correspondence with the seller. If the item is purchased online, see if you have to pay for return shipping and handling. There can be other conditions placed on returns and refunds as well, ask about policies before you buy and before you seek to return an item.
Use familiar websites: If you know the site, go there by typing the address directly rather than clicking on a link that was sent to you. Make sure websites are not fraudulent by checking that they use the correct spelling of a business name, have operational customer service numbers, and have a real street address rather than a post office box.
Shopping Apps: Be aware that some shopping apps collect a lot of personal information. Make sure that you understand how your data will be used. Only use apps that clearly tell you what they do with your data and how they keep it secure.
Look for the Lock: Avoid buying anything online using your credit card from a site that doesn’t have SSL (secure sockets layer) encryption installed. You’ll know if the site has SSL because the URL for the site will start with HTTPS—instead of just HTTP. An icon of a locked padlock will appear, typically to the left of the URL in the address bar or the status bar down below.
Avoid phishing scams. Watch out for unsolicited emails, texts, or calls offering a free item or letting you know there’s a problem with a delivery. Clicking on a link to verify or provide information could expose you to identity theft or allow malware onto your electronic device. When in doubt, consumers should always check the email sender details and hover over links to ensure they lead to trusted websites before clicking. Also, use up-to-date antivirus software, which will help you avoid non-secure websites and pop-up phishing scams.
Secure networks: Do not use public Wi-Fi to do your shopping. Open networks make it easier for hackers to steal your information. Consider using a virtual private network to be safe. Make sure that your home’s Wi-Fi network is secured with a password.
Use your credit card. It’s always best to make purchases with your credit card rather than a debit card or other payment means. If any shady charges turn up later, you will be able to contest them through your credit card company. Debit cards don’t offer the same protections. If you used a credit card, many retailers will also process a return or refund even if you lost or misplaced the receipt. Never make purchases with online sellers by giving them prepaid debit cards or wiring them money.
Gift cards: Only buy cards from reputable sellers to ensure the card is valid and was not previously used. Under state law, gift cards and gift certificates must retain their full value for 24 months after purchase. After that period, merchants are allowed to charge a dormancy fee of up to $2 a month, as long as that fee is disclosed on the card or certificate or sales receipt or package for the card or certificate. While a gift card or certificate may list an expiration date, the underlying funds never expire. The merchant must include a telephone number for consumer inquiries into the expiration date and dormancy fees on the card.
For more holiday shopping tips and information on avoiding scams, visit the Division’s website for a wealth of consumer briefs and educational materials.
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file an online complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or call 1-800-242-5846 to receive a complaint form by mail.