Consumer IQ

Bad Santa! 3 Perfectly Legitimate Holiday Scams To Watch For

The fake Santas and the fraudsters with empty gas cans are relatively easy to spot, as I mentioned last week. But what about the businesses that scam you “legally”?

Oh, they’re out there.

In this world, there are two kinds of scams – the “lowercase” ones that are obviously criminal in nature (think pyramid scheme, confidence trick and common swindles) and the “uppercase” scams perpetrated by established businesses.

Those are the worst. Why? Because there’s no law that can protect you from them.

And at no time are you in more danger of falling for one than right now, at the height of the holiday shopping season. American consumers are recklessly spending their money during the next few weeks. Yeah, even in this economy.

Here’s what you could fall for:

The gift card

What could be more practical than giving a gift card for the holidays? Americans give $90 billion worth of gift cards every year, according to a recent study by Plastic Jungle — most of it during the holidays. But up to 7 percent of the cards go unredeemed- often because of very short expiration dates that render the cards difficult to use. That’s more than $6 billion of your money that companies know they will be able to keep. Might as well throw the cash on the old Yule Log. A new federal law prohibits short expiration dates on store credit and limits certain fees, but that’s unlikely to change the fact that on balance, gift cards are a completely legitimate scam that have probably cost you hundreds of dollars. Worse, you might not even know about it.

You’re better off buying a present or giving money. Even a pre-paid card, like a Visa Gift Card, is preferable – and has fewer restrictions – than the average gift card.

The fake liquidation sale

At a time when the economy is sluggish, and several businesses in your neighborhood may be liquidating – or saying they’re liquidating, be on the lookout for this scam. First, know this: When a big business goes under, the final sale is handled by a liquidator whose job it is to get the most from the remaining merchandise. So when you show up at the old Borders store that’s about to close, bear in mind that the prices could be marked up – not down – from their normal prices. (During a Linens’n’Things liquidation, for example, mystery shoppers discovered items marked up by as much as 14 percent).

Why do we fall for it? Easy. We see the words “going out of business” and “sale” which lowers our defenses and it’s also the holidays, so there’s a sense of urgency to the purchase – a winning combination, if you’re a professional liquidator. What’s more, marking up items and calling it a sale is perfectly legal. Watch out!

The Christmas toy craze

Remember Cabbage Patch Kids? How about Tickle Me Elmo? Or Beanie Babies, Furby or Pokemon? Absolutely legal, all of them. And a one-way ticket to scam-ville, if you fell for them. In the 21st century, fad toys (that what they’re called) “sell out” quickly and are only available at a steep markup from select stores or online. I’ve always been wary of these “must-have” items, but they’re highly susceptible to artificial shortages – retailers claiming these are the last ones, a high-pressure sales tactic that forces you to make a buying decision right now.

How do you tell if the toy is part of a legal scam? If you’ve received several spam messages offering the “last” Pogs at a discount, chances are you’re wading into the dark waters of a scam. Their claim is unverifiable and meaningless, but worse, it there’s no law protecting you against it. Plus, the business is preying on you at a time when you’re at your most vulnerable: during the holidays.

The takeaway, my friends, is this: The legal, “uppercase” scams await you all year, but they are especially bad now.

Be on your guard. Think before you buy. Because these swindles happen in broad daylight – and you could be an easy mark.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.