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Look Out for the Cyber Grinch! How to Shop Safely This Holiday Season

Yes, there is a Cyber Grinch. In fact, you’ll find evidence of an entire host of grinches online — the cybercrooks who, with the help of AI, create millions of online scams that crop up just in time to spoil the holiday season. But you can still shop safely, with a sharp eye and the right tools at your side. 

This time of year always sees a boost in scams. After all, where shoppers go, scammers follow. Research from our McAfee Labs team found that scam volume ramps up 30% above average this time of year, kicking off in November and carrying over into the first week of the new year. 

To gain even more insight into the impact online scams have on consumers, we conducted our inaugural Global Holiday Shopping Scams Study. More than 7,000 adults in seven countries told us how scams have impacted their holidays. They also shared their feelings about the recent onset of AI-driven scams.  

The findings offer several significant insights, including the financial impact of scams, and even when and where people shop online (spoiler: that includes purchases made at the dinner table and in the bathtub).  

Let’s dig into the findings. From there, we’ll show you several ways you can stay safe while you shop online, so you can send those grinches packing. 

Holiday scam findings for 2023 

For starters, 36% of Americans said they were a victim of an online shopping scam during the holiday season. That’s more than one in three people, making it likely that you know someone who’s been taken in. Of those who fell for holiday scams online, nearly half said it cost them $100 or more. Strikingly, one in four victims said it cost them $1,000 or more. 

The top three online scams people reported include: 

  1. Text messages about purchases they didn’t make (57%).
  2. Fake missed delivery or fake problem with delivery notifications (56%). 
  3. Bogus Amazon security alerts and notification messages about their account (43%). 

We looked at those figures more closely and found some trends that show some folks get tangled up in these scams more than others.  

Comparing men and women, 65% of men said they place the same level of trust in shopping online as they do in person. Meanwhile, women appear to be a bit more discerning. Only 46% of women said they had the same level of trust. We then found that men were nearly twice as likely to fall for an online holiday scam (46%) than women (26%).  

When looking across generations, we found that 64% of Gen Z and 77% of Millennials trust shopping online as much as in person. Likewise, they found themselves victimized by scams more often than older adults. Of the younger set, 49% of Gen Z and 65% of Millennials said they fell for a holiday scam. Compare that to only 12% of people over 50 saying the same thing. 

What’s on the mind of holiday shoppers … 

We also got some insight into people’s headspace.  

People are as deal conscious as ever, with 1 out of 3 (35%) saying they will likely jump on a bargain when they see it. They also plan to shop around; 85% of people said they will look for the best deal before buying their holiday gifts.  

It’s no surprise that 63% planned to shop online during Black Friday and Cyber Monday weekend. However, we found some surprises — namely, where they are when they shop online: 

  • 41% of people said they made an online purchase during the holiday period in bed late at night when they really should be asleep.  
  • 27% said they made an online purchase while at work.  
  • 20% said they made an online purchase at the kitchen table during dinner. 
  • 11% said they made a gift purchase while in the bath.  

Take all that together and it leaves the Cyber Grinch wringing his hands in delight. Bargain hunting, shopping around, and buying online when you’re somewhat distracted make it easier for scammers to pull off their tricks.  

Scammers count on the stress and pressures of holiday shopping. When people are tired or in a hurry, they tend to make mistakes. And now they’re easier to make, no thanks to the scammers who’ve picked up AI tools. 

People say AI scams will put a chill on their shopping

The bad actors out there now have AI-driven tools that help them fire up scams at alarming rates. They make it easier to create compelling fake emails, malicious sites, and text messages. In fact, a new phishing site is created every 11 seconds, and Americans receive an average of 12 fake messages or scams daily 

On top of that, AI has made it harder than ever to tell what’s real from what’s fake. Not only have we seen a deluge of scams, but it’s also a deluge of increasingly sophisticated scams. With AI tools, scammers can make their emails, messages, and texts look and sound more convincing than ever. 

People shared their concerns about AI scams:  

  • 88% of people said they think that AI tools used by cybercriminals will impact the amount and types of online scams during the holiday season.  
  • 57% think that AI will make scam emails and messages more believable than ever.  
  • 31% think that it will be harder to tell what’s a real message versus a fake one, such as from a retailer or delivery service.  
  • 1 in 5 consumers (19%) said they don’t plan to shop online as much this year because of the increased use of AI by cybercrooks. 

Despite what we discovered in many of the findings, we have good news to share: there are tools that can help you shop safely. 

How to protect yourself from scam messages 

Think before you click. Cybercriminals use phishing emails or fake sites to lure people into clicking links that might lead to malware. If you receive an email or text message asking you to click on a link, it’s best to avoid interacting with the message altogether. Even if it’s a great-sounding deal or indicates it’ll provide useful info such as a parcel delivery update. Always go direct to the source and interact with reputable companies.  

Remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Many scams are effective because the scammer creates a false sense of urgency or preys on a heightened emotional state. Pause before you rush to interact with any message that is threatening or urgent, especially if it is from an unknown or unlikely sender. The same very much applies for deals and sales online. Scammers will pop up bogus online ads and stores for sought-after gifts, of course with no intention of shipping you anything. Look out for offers that seem priced too low and hard-to-find items that are miraculously in stock at an online store you’ve never heard of. Stick with reputable retailers instead. 

Go unlisted. Scammers have to get your contact info from somewhere. Often, they get it from online data brokers and other “people finder” sites. These sites collect and sell massive amounts of personal info to any buyer. You can remove that info from some of the riskiest data brokers with our Personal Data Cleanup service. It can help you remove that info, and with select products it can even manage the removal for you. Likewise, set your social media accounts to “friends and family” only so that your profile info doesn’t show up in search results. 

Use AI to beat AI.From blocking dangerous links that appear in text messages, social media, or web browsers, you have AI on your side. McAfee Scam Protection automatically identifies and alerts you if it detects a dangerous URL in your text. No more wondering if a delivery message or bank notification text is real or not. McAfee’s patented AI technology instantaneously detects malicious links to stop you before you click by sending an alert message. It’ll even block risky sites if you accidentally click on a scam link in a text, email, social media, and more. You’ll find it in our online protection plans like our award-winning McAfee+ subscriptions. 

 No grinches, only grins this holiday season 

One thing that hasn’t changed this year, scammers love the holidays. Just as you’re gearing up for shopping, they’re gearing up for scamming. The hustle and bustle of the holidays, AI-driven scam tools, and malicious messages and websites seemingly play in the favor of scammers. Yet AI-driven protection like ours puts the advantage back squarely in your corner. That, and keeping your guard up for trickery, will help you steer clear of all those grinches out there this year. 

Survey methodology 

The survey, which focused on the topic of scam messages and holiday shopping, was conducted online between September 7 and September 21, 2023. 7,130 adults, age 18+, in 7 countries (US, Australia, India, UK, France, Germany, Japan), participated in the study. 

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