FBI warns of major online scams this holiday season: how to protect yourself

Kristine Solomon
·6 min read

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Charity Scam warning sign, A yellow warning sign with text Charity Fraud and theft icon on a keyboard
Charity Scam warning sign, A yellow warning sign with text Charity Fraud and theft icon on a keyboard

Thinking of making charitable donations this holiday season? Great! It’s natural to get into a giving spirit this time of year—especially considering the year we’ve had. Bear in mind, though, there are plenty of cyber criminals out there waiting to catch you off guard and capitalize on your generosity.

The holidays are peak season for charity fraud, and the FBI released a statement this month warning people about scams associated with COVID-19 charities.

“Nationwide, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have received reports of scammers fraudulently soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19,” the warning reads. “They are leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to steal your money, your personal information, or both. Don’t let them.”

How do cyber criminals hook you in when you’re donating to a charity?

“There are legitimate organizations out there that are trying to raise money to help victims of COVID-19 and their families,” notes Adam Levin, cyber security expert and founder of Cyberscout, to Yahoo Life. “But then there are also scammers who send fake charitable requests.”

Fraudulent charity requests are designed to fool you, so it can be hard to tell the difference between a legitimate one and a trap designed to steal your money—or, worse, your entire identity, including your banking information and even your social security number. There are several ways to protect yourself.

Double-down on charity fraud protection with Malwarebytes Premium—free for 30 days

Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device (Photo: Malwarebytes)
Malwarebytes Premium Multi-Device (Photo: Malwarebytes)

If you typically make donations on your computer—and if most of your online activity exists there instead of a smartphone—experts recommend investing in rock-solid anti-malware software. Malwarebytes Premium is the leading software for a job so important. It fights existing and emerging malware invasions—meaning it prevents malware attacks in real time, but also cleans out any existing malware you may be unaware of.

One Malwarebytes Premium subscription protects up to three Windows or Mac computers, and it’s free to try for 30 days. After that, it’s just $4.99 a month. That breaks down to about 60 cents per day to protect your personal data.

Malwarebytes recently identified a COVID-19 specific scam and stopped it in its tracks. A recent email has been circulating with the subject line: “URGENT: Coronavirus, Can we count on your support today?” The email claims to come from the Department of Health (it doesn’t) and asks email users to donate to COVID-19 prevention causes. The link at the bottom of the email doesn’t open a web site — but a malicious application that could put your personal information and your computer at risk.

Charity fraud, Malwarebytes
Charity fraud, Malwarebytes

Cyber criminals have also been circulating malicious Word document attachment in an email that, “allegedly contained information about coronavirus prevention,” according to Malwarebytes’ blog. Scammers have also been distributing phishing emails, PDFs, MP4s, and Docx files, all with COVID-19 prevention-related titles—but the files actually contain dangerous malware.

Think of Malwarebytes Premium as a doctor for your computer—diagnosing and treating any infections you already have, and arming you against future infections. Except this doctor makes 24/7 house calls. It runs in the background of your computer at all times, quietly protecting you no matter what.

Shop it: Malwarebytes Premium, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

“All of these threats rely on the same dangerous intersection of misinformation and panic—a classic and grotesque cyber crime tactic,” says the Malwarebyte blog. “A great defense to these is, quite simply, the truth.”

Levin agrees. “When you get contacted by a charity, it could be legitimate. But if you want to be safe, go directly to the website of the charity,” says Levin. “Ronald Reagan had a statement that he's famous for: ‘Trust, but verify.’ In this world today, you have to take that phrase and alter it to say, ‘Never trust. Always question. Always verify.’ Because you have too much to lose.”

Best practices for safely donating to charities online—and avoiding scams

The FBI says that once you’ve zeroed in on a charity, look to online reviews and consult sites like the Better Business Bureau, Give.org, Charity Navigator, or Charity Watch to verify their legitimacy. This applies to donations made through social media, crowdfunding websites, or directly to the charities themselves.

“Before donating, ask how much of the donation will go toward the program or cause you want to support,” the FBI says in its brief. “Every organization has administrative costs, and it’s important to understand those structures.”

One specific way fraudsters are poaching dollars from well-meaning donors is through a method called phishing, in which hackers disguise themselves as legitimate charities to solicit funds via email. When these bogus “charities” contact you via text, it’s called smishing. Either way, it’s attempted theft.

One of your best defenses against charity fraud is a powerful software package like Norton Security Online, which provides bank-grade encryption for your online donations—as well as real-time protection from viruses, spyware, malware and other traps set by cyber criminals.

Norton Security Online is the #1 cyber security software for thwarting charity fraud

Norton Security Online (Photo: subscriptions.yahoo.com)
Norton Security Online (Photo: subscriptions.yahoo.com)

Norton Security Online is free to try for 30 days, and after that it’s just $4.99 a month for protection of up to five devices, including Macs, PCs, and smartphones.

This best-in-class software safely shields your personal and financial information from prying eyes whether you’re responding to a charity solicitation or doing any other banking transaction on your computer or smartphone. It even warns you if you’re about to download something fishy or visit a risky website.

Shop it: Norton Security Online, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

Though Norton Security Online and Malwarebytes Premium provide ultimate protection against charity fraud—and pretty much any other kind of online fraud—experts caution against getting complacent. Understanding safe online behavior is also pivotal, especially if you’re providing much-needed charity donations during a pandemic.

Donation concept on laptop, tablet and smartphone screen over gray table. Top view
Donation concept on laptop, tablet and smartphone screen over gray table. Top view

The FBI also recommends checking your financial statements after the fact to make sure no additional fees have been deducted. Levin suggests turning on transaction alerts for your credit cards (and the FBI says credit cards are the safest way to donate) so you can get real-time updates.

"Never trust. Always question. Always verify. Because you have too much to lose." Adam Levin, Founder of Cyberscout

And then...bring on the holiday cheer! With Norton Security Online, Malwarebytes Premium and smart, responsible online behavior, you can rest easy knowing you’re giving back safely. Don’t let charity fraud or identity theft dampen your giving spirit. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, generous, and justly protected.

Shop it: Norton Security Online, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

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