KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The time for holiday shopping has come, but as merrymakers browse for that special gift, scammers are searching for ways to separate them from their money.

“I think people are particularly vulnerable this time of year,”  Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist and CEO of Aura, a cybersecurity company based in Massachusetts, said

Americans were blindsided by an unparalleled spike in cybercrime in 2021, with nearly 850,000 reports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last year and roughly $7 billion losses, according to the FBI’s 2021 IC3 Annual Report.

In 2020, the FBI received almost 792,000 reports related to cybercrime and notified of nearly $4.2 billion in losses, 39% fewer losses than in 2021, the report cites.

According to a study conducted by the Better Business Bureau, 40% of all scams reported last year involved online shopping fraud, and the FBI confirms thousands of people fall victim during the holiday season.

“Typically, scammers are after things like your credit card number, your bank account information, sometimes your other data, like your social security, your driver’s license number, etc.,” Zulfikar said.

“With your bank account information and your credit card numbers, they can make transactions on your behalf. With the other pieces of information, they can open up new accounts in your anime and more generally, engage in identity theft.”

How to identify a holiday scam

Scammers use the holidays to take advantage of people’s generous spirits and prey on Black Friday and Cyber Monday bargain hunters through one-day only promotions and deals, often too good to be true, Zulfikar said.

“So, if you think about, maybe there’s a particular item you wanted to buy for the holidays, it’s the ‘it’ gift to have, the major stores are out of it, and all of a sudden you see an online ad that says, ‘We have this item for a discount,’” he described.

“Somebody’s gonna get that message and it’s gonna appeal to someone out there.”

Scammers are good at psychological manipulation, often using techniques of panic and fear to coerce victims, he said.

“They’ll say, ‘Hey, one-time only sale. If you don’t respond right now the sale’s going to go away,’ and somebody is out there in a moment of weakness who wants that item, maybe for their kid or their family member, will click on that link and the scammers know what to do at exactly that point,” Zulfikar said.

People should be mindful of fake charities and scams related to shipping and receiving, Zulfikar said, as well as fraudulent promotional deals.

“So, for example, you get a text message that says, ‘Hey, your package is lost, please call us,’ and inevitably, in this day and age, somebody’s probably ordered a package recently at some point so, you know, I might call back and say, ‘Hey, what happened to my package?’” he said.

“I might not realize that the person I’m calling is not the actual store but is a scammer and any information I give away, unfortunately, at that point, is lost forever and is in the scammer’s hands.”

Where to report a scam and what to do

Victims of scams should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center IC3, and even their local police department.

“It never hurts to report these things to law enforcement,” Zulfikar said. “They may see a series of cases that they may be able to put together. Many times what happens is your credit card information gets stolen, it may have been stolen as part of a larger breach.”

If a scammer fools even one person, they’re often making a profit, Zulfikar said, so it’s important to report it before the scam spreads.

“It does not cost a lot of money to send out a lot of emails or send out a bunch of text messages and if you craft your message and adjust it enough times, at some point, you’ll get a message that resonates with a particular victim, that’s the first thing,” Zulfikar said. “The second thing is you don’t need very many victims to be successful in these types of scams because they’re so cheap to run that if you get even a few victims, there’s a clear profit for the scammer.”

If a scam leads to identity theft, victims can contact the Identity Theft Research Center at 888-400-5530 or the FTC at identitytheft.gov.

To learn more about holiday scams, visit the FBI’s website.