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10 seasonal phishing scams to watch out for and how to protect yourself against them

Don’t fall for these rackets designed to steal your money or identity. Stay alert (and safe) with these tips to help you spot fraudulent schemes.

Fraud is a year-round phenomenon, but people are more vulnerable to phishing scams during the holiday season, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

And since consumers are spending more online than ever before, these schemes tend to spike in the holiday season, according to Katherine Hutt, a spokesperson for the organization.

“Scammers are opportunists, so they take advantage of the holidays,” she says. “We’re spending more, we’re busier, and we have less time to think about things before we do them.”


To protect yourself, Hutt advises slowing down and being on the lookout for these common holiday-themed phishing scams.


This scam—which uses counterfeit notices from UPS, Canada Post or FedEx—can be particularly effective during the holidays, when many shoppers have recently made online purchases. Scammers may ask for additional personal information in order to steal your identity, or they may download malware or ransomware onto your computer or phone. 

HOW TO AVOID IT: Don’t click on links or give personal information. Instead, go to the retailer’s website to track the status of your orders.


According to the BBB, fake websites take advantage of families shopping for pets. Victims pay in advance for a purebred pet, insurance, shots, food and shipping, but the pet never arrives. Last year, the bureau reported that up to 80 per cent of sponsored ads for pet sites on social media were bogus. The same study cited that the Canadian Antifraud Centre received 377 complaints pertaining to animals in 2016. This year to date, the BBB has already seen an increase in the number of scam reports that contain the words pet, puppy or dog on its tracker—up to 4.8 per cent from 3 per cent in 2017.

HOW TO AVOID IT: Humane Canada suggests using the internet purely for research to find a reputable breeder and buying the puppy in person*. Other warning signs it highlights include the requirement to send money to a foreign country and animals being sold at a discount without papers, which is illegal in Canada. The BBB recommends meeting the pet in person and being wary of the seller if the animal’s image appears on multiple websites. Also, refer to volunteer-run, for a list of sham websites. 


Perhaps the least festive scam of all, this fraudulent offer can arrive in the form of an email inviting potential victims to a fake website that sells letters or packages from Santa. There are legitimate companies offering Santa letters for a fee and scammers mimic their approach. They may request credit card information or personal information, but Santa’s letter never arrives.

HOW TO AVOID IT: Look for a physical address on the company’s website. Search for the name of the company, along with the word “scam” in a search engine. Do not share your personal information—or your child’s—online or on the phone. Consider using Canada Post’s letter from Santa service, which is free and secure.


If you’ve shopped recently at Walmart or Amazon, you might be convinced by an email that mimics their branding. Phishers may suggest clicking on a link that goes to a fake website, where victims are asked to provide personal or credit card information. In one particularly tricky twist on the scam, the email will ask the recipient to click a link if they did not authorize the purchase.

HOW TO AVOID IT: Beware of emails that contain grammar and spelling errors. Blurry logos are another red flag, since scammers do not have access to high-quality digital images. Do not click the link or be fooled by copycat branding that mirrors the real site. Don’t provide a username, password or other personal information. 


An email alert from a major retailer announcing deals, sales and free gifts or gift cards may convince recipients to click a link. But it may lead to a look-alike website designed to trick you into making a purchase and giving your credit card information. 

HOW TO AVOID IT: Look for misspelling and faulty grammar in the email. Hover over links to see the web address they lead to, then compare it to the real thing by using a search engine to find the retailer's site. Only give your credit card information to websites that begin with https, which indicates a secure website.


Like the fake website scam above, this charity phishing attack is more likely to be convincing at the holidays, when people are in a generous mood. Scammers use email or social media posts to lead people to a fake website, where they make urgent, emotional appeals for help. Using a name that resembles that of a legitimate charity, they request payment in ways that make it difficult to recover the funds—by wire transfer, pre-loaded credit card or electronic currency.

HOW TO AVOID IT: Do not click links in unsolicited emails. Watch for slight variations on common charity names. Verify that a charity is legitimate by referring to the Government of Canada’s List of Charities, which is updated daily. Search for the charity’s name in a search engine, along with the words “scam” or “complaint.” Do not make donations using untraceable forms of payment.


This scam begins on social media, where fraudsters invite participants to take part in a gift exchange that sounds too good to be true: Give one gift and receive as many as 36 in return. This is a pyramid scheme. Scammers may also ask participants provide personal information, compounding the risk. 

HOW TO AVOID IT: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never provide personal information on social media sites. Don’t be drawn in by friends who are taking part; pyramid schemes are illegal, whether they’re between friends or not.


Also known as family emergency scams, fraudsters play on the fears of older people by posing as a young relative in need of help. By researching their target’s family through social media sites, they may have enough personal details to be convincing. Scammers request a wire transfer or gift cards—methods of payment that can’t be tracked, saying they need it to get out of jail, fly home from a foreign country or pay legal fees. In some cases, they pretend to be a lawyer representing the target’s relative.

HOW TO AVOID IT: Verify the identity of your family member by reaching out on a familiar phone number or at a known email address. Talk to other family members to confirm the crisis. Ask for details that only your family member would know, such as a birthday or the name of a pet. Do not send money orders, wire transfers, gift cards or any other unusual form of payment.   


Retailers frequently hire extra staff during the holidays, and scammers appeal to job searchers by impersonating recruiters. After harvesting the target’s personal information and professional interests from online job boards, they offer a fake position that may seem like a dream job. They may request personal information or ask that applicants buy software or equipment in order to work from home. 

HOW TO AVOID IT: Beware of jobs that offer high pay for little work. Go to the store to apply in person, rather than online. Never give personal information on the phone or online. Do not purchase anything before taking on the job. 


Your aunt likes to send an annual e-card at this time of year. So do scammers, who use this friendly-looking form of communication to solicit personal information or plant a virus in your computer.

HOW TO AVOID IT: Look for the name of the sender before opening an e-card. Don’t click links. Beware of attachments that end in .exe, which indicates they may contain a virus.


About four in 10 Canadians fear their personal information has been compromised, according to CPA Canada’s annual fraud survey. And with telephone fraud becoming harder to trace, it’s important to be aware of the latest scams.

Also, protect yourself from knock-offs while shopping this holiday season with these smart tips to spot counterfeit products.

*Clarification: This story was modified on Dec. 14, 2018 to include more details from Humane Canada.