Fraud Watch

The author says that the Santa Scam often is quite difficult to separate from what might be a legitimate business offer.

The end of Medicare open enrollment may have stopped the monthslong barrage of legal, questionable and illegal advertising, only to clear the way for other similarly annoying campaigns. The need to maintain awareness and a healthy degree of skepticism remains.

A recent column stressed awareness of seasonal scams, but it is impossible to describe them all in a single article. Here are two dangerous scams that attack your wallet and your identity: the Santa Scam and the Sister Scam.

The Santa Scam

The Santa Scam is often quite difficult to separate from what may be a legitimate business offer.

Appearing as an email message or coming as a phone call, it urges the purchase of a letter from Santa Claus. The advertisement offers a personal, “certified” letter from Santa for children, grandchildren or, for that matter, anyone else.

A credit card charge covers the purchase, plus other expenses, in return for the letter, a naughty/nice list of names with the recipient’s name prominently featured in the “nice” column, and possibly a small gift or a video from “Santa” with a Merry Christmas wish.

If legitimate, it appears to stop here, though I honestly don’t know the how or who regarding a certification of the letter.

Whether a scam or not, the fallout from this purchase can be significant. First, if it’s fraud, you fell for the scam! Second, you provided verification of your existence, which may include email address, mailing address, credit card and possibly phone number; expect to hear from the Easter Bunny.

You gave away the identity and contact information of a child who may, in turn, be victimized. When you clicked on the link in the email, you most likely confirmed your town/city, type of computer, operating system, internet provider and browser; all in a single click!

While giving a letter from Santa may seem to be a great idea, it can be “nightmare” that keeps giving, even in situations when there is no scam.

Before placing your order, consider alternatives. Is there a local organization or high school that is raising money by sending letters from Santa? What about contacting a local business for a card and package from Santa? Most will welcome the additional business during the current pandemic.

Finally, if you still want to use one of these services, conduct an independent online review through the Better Business Bureau or with your state consumer protection agency. Know what you are buying before clicking.

Sister Scam

The second warning is the so-called Sister Scam or Secret Sister Gift Exchange.

The scam reads or sounds like this: “I’m looking for six women who would be interested in a pre-holiday gift exchange. You only have to buy one $10 gift and send it to your secret sister. You will then receive six to 36 gifts in return. Let me know if you’re interested and I will send you the information for your secret sister. We all could use some happy mail!”

If this sounds like the good old pyramid scam, it is!

The scams wave an opportunity for you to receive dozens of gifts in a short period of time. Assuming this process of recruiting gift givers were to really work, by the 10th repetition of the cycle of six it would require more than the total number of “sisters” in the United States.

The Better Business Bureau advises to ignore it. Don’t try to beat this system; you will lose. Report it. Social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, responds to notices of fraud. Report an email or a webpage to your service provider, as well as to your state consumer protection agency or the FBI.

Never give personal information to anyone whose true identity is not known to you, and be suspicious of false claims stating that the scheme is legal. Some of these scams even claim to be endorsed by the government as a way to avoid contracting COVID-19. Pure and simple, they are crimes, and you have the ability to fight them.

Questions, concerns, comments? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, “Mr. Scammer,” distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.: gnat-tv.org.