Season for scams: Authorities urge vigilance during holiday shopping, giving


If you’re a victim of a scam or notice fraudulent activity, there are a variety of ways to report the scam and get help.

  • Better Business Bureau: Visit
  • Federal Trade Commission: Visit
  • Iowa Attorney General’s Office: Call 515-281-5926
  • Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department: Call 563-589-4406
  • Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging: Call 1-800-779-8707
  • Legal Hotline for Older Iowans: Call 800-992-8161

As the holiday season approaches, local and national authorities warn consumers to be especially vigilant in regard to scams.

“There’s a lot more spending during the holiday season, and that opens an avenue for scammers,” said Ashlee Kieler, of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

The Better Business Bureau recently released a report charting the “12 Scams of Christmas.” The list includes fake shipping notifications, suspicious holiday apps, seasonal jobs that don’t really exist and too-good-to-be-true offers for popular toys.

The risk of scams, particularly via online purchases, is always higher during the holidays, according to the BBB. This year, several factors stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could make the issue even more prevalent.


The BBB’s 2021 Online Purchase Scams Report notes that the pandemic prompted a massive increase in online shopping last year. As a result, online purchase scams reported to the organization’s “Scam Tracker” increased from 24% of all scams reported in 2019 to 38% in 2020.

Those buying online should keep their eyes open for fraud. For example, emails containing coupons from supposedly legitimate retailers should be treated with caution, according to Kieler.

“If you get an email from a retailer and it’s appealing to you, make sure you go to their website directly. Don’t just click on the links in an email,” she said.


The pandemic also created supply-chain issues and shipping delays, leaving buyers in limbo as to when their orders will arrive. For consumers who are desperate to find a certain product in time for the holidays, an online marketplace promising speedy delivery or rock-bottom prices can be attractive.

But area residents should closely examine claims on such websites, according to Stacie Speirs, regional director with Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging.

“You need to be sure that you’re on a trusted site before you purchase something,” she said.

Somewhat related, anyone claiming to be from a government agency and seeking payment for their services in gift cards can be assumed to be a fraudster, confirmed Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy.

“We’ve said it until we’re blue in the face — no government entity takes gift cards,” he said.


Speirs said the pandemic also has made some older citizens more vulnerable to fraudulent phone calls as they seek social connections.

“Some older people who are isolated and don’t get a chance to talk to tons of people may be willing to talk to anyone on the phone to have a connection with someone,” she said. “ … They may be more likely to stay on the line and continue that conversation and end up giving out information that you want to keep safe.”

Kennedy said telephone scams can seem very legitimate.

“A person can be 10,000 miles away and research just about everything about your life sitting over here in Dubuque, Iowa,” he said. “These people know how to do their homework and say the right things to get you to trust them.”

However, cold calls from a purported business or government entity should be viewed with suspicion.

“Anybody that contacts you out of the blue … asking for your personal information or banking information, it’s probably a bogus call,” Kennedy said.


Another common type of holiday fraud occurs when scammers solicit donations for a non-existent charitable organization.

“This is a season of being generous, when people are giving money and gifts to charities, and so it’s really easy for scammers to pose as legitimate charities. A lot of times they’ll have the exact same name,” Speirs said. “It’s easy to get tricked into giving banking information or credit information.”

While Kennedy has not received any local reports of fake charities, he advised citizens to always research a charitable organization before sending funds.