How to Vet Holiday Deals and Avoid Scams

Supply chain issues, shipping delays and lingering fears from the pandemic have injected a heightened level of stress and scarcity into this year’s holiday shopping season. That could lead some consumers to fall for scam deals or buy products that aren’t quite what they expected.

Here’s how to avoid a Black Friday deal that’s too good to be true — and how to get the best real deals this holiday season.


Prepare before you shop

You are your best defense against getting scammed or duped into buying an item that’s not what you think it is.

Before you shop, know your budget for holiday gifts and make a list of exactly what you want. The unique challenges of shopping for the holidays in 2021 — recent supply chain issues, the ongoing microchip shortage and lagging delivery times — might tempt you to go for a deal the moment you see it. Don’t let the fear of missing out on your must-have item lead you to making overhasty purchases.


“Scarcity is a persuasion tactic that is used by legitimate retailers and also scammers,” says Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP. “It’s those impulse buys that get us into trouble.”


For example, if you’re in the market for electronics like a TV, pin down the model numbers of the items on your list. This can help you avoid what’s called a “derivative” model. These products, which are typically only sold during the holidays, may look similar to the item you have in mind and be listed for hundreds of dollars less. The catch? These cheaper versions are generally lower quality, making them a worse deal than they seem at first glance.


“Do your research to make sure that this is the product and the quality that you have been expecting,” says Nofziger. “Don't let the hype of Black Friday take over your cognitive thinking.”


Know scammers’ tricks

Like the release of a must-have gadget, scammers are continually iterating and deploying new tricks to the masses in hopes of nabbing your money or personal information.

Once your shopping list is ready, protect yourself by knowing about these scams.

Social media ads

As you doomscroll and swipe through the posts in your Facebook or Instagram feeds, be on the lookout for scam ads, too. Social media companies may not thoroughly vet every ad on their platforms, so the promotions you’re seeing for the latest gaming console or trendy sneakers could actually be bait from scammers.

“We hear about people purchasing an item [they see on social media] and not getting the item, or getting the item and it’s vastly different,” says Nofziger. “Then the vendor won’t respond.”


What you can do: Before making a purchase from a company advertised to you in your social media feeds, investigate it to see if it’s legit. That means checking out the website to see if it looks trustworthy, researching if the company has a physical address and verifying whether it sells more products than the one you saw advertised. Not meeting any one of these criteria may be a red flag of a scam advertisement.

Even if the company is legitimate, go a step further and check out customer complaints. Google the name of the company plus the word “complaint” to see what consumers have said about it. Consumer Reports can be a handy resource here, too.


And when shopping online, use your credit card if possible. That’s because credit cards tend to have certain protections from fraud that debit cards and peer-to-peer payment methods don’t offer. If a company asks you to pay using a gift card or a peer-to-peer payment company like Venmo or Cash App, that can also be a red flag of a scam company.


Hyper-targeted phishing emails

You get an email with an exclusive deal, just for you. Because you’ve shopped at a certain retailer, the email says, you’re eligible to receive a special offer. Or maybe you’ve just purchased a car, and you get an email saying you were chosen to receive a discount on its accessories. So you click through to the retailer’s landing page, enter your personal information and — poof — you’ve just been scammed.

With the help of troves of your personal data, scammers are sending personalized emails that can dupe you into giving over your login credentials or banking information, says Rob Shavell, CEO of the online privacy company DeleteMe. The email and the landing page may even be mocked up to look identical to the actual retailer’s designs.


“These [scam emails] are being fueled by consumer data sets,” says Shavell. Your personally identifiable information, or PII, which includes things like your name, address and even social media posts, can be collected by data brokers into consumer data sets and then sold to scammers and others.

According to DeleteMe, the volume of PII found online has more than doubled from 2018 to 2020. The amount of information about you available on the internet makes it easy for scammers to push out these personalized emails.

What you can do: Be on the lookout for emails that have an uncanny amount of personalization and verify the sender before clicking any links included.


“Typically when it relates to a shopping email, people are very lackadaisical,” says Shavell. “If you’re getting an email from your bank, you’ll probably double-check it. Rarely will a typical consumer do that with a shopping deal.”

While scammers can mimic the design of retailer emails, they can’t hide their email address. Before clicking any links, check the sender’s email address on any promotional email you receive to verify its source. Scammers may use an email address that has a single letter off from the authentic email address in hopes that you won’t notice.


Regardless of the scam you encounter, if you do fall victim to one, report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission and your state’s attorney general.


Nab (real) deals when you can

With your shopping list prepped, your budget sorted and your guard up against potential scams, work to nab holiday deals when you can.

“I think consumers who are interested in getting those deals would benefit from shopping earlier because of the supply chain shortages,” says Vicki Morwitz, Bruce Greenwald Professor of Business and professor of marketing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. “Products may not be around later, and we’re expecting shipping to be slower this year too.”

Much like last year, the best sales won’t be limited to one day, Morwitz says. Instead, expect to find deals popping up earlier over a longer period of time.


“If you’ve done your research and you see it checks these various boxes, go and get that great deal,” says Nofziger.

Also, brush up on the proven ways to get the best deals when shopping online. Beyond having your budget in hand, use coupons when available and work to get rewards when you shop.


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