Festive fraud - not always the season of goodwill

The Old College in the snow

The Old College in the snow

28 December 2023

By Dr Gareth Norris andAlexandra Brookes, Psychology Department

Fraud is a seasonal activity: from tax scams at the end of the financial year to fake holiday websites in the summer, criminals seek to exploit our cyclical engagement with certain activities.

Christmas is a particularly lucrative time for online fraud, as criminals attempt to capitalise on the festive season's characteristics - greater spending, increased online activity and emotional dispositions. The potential for higher financial gains motivates cybercriminals to intensify their efforts to execute fraud schemes such as identity theft, credit card fraud, and fake charity scams. Understanding how and why there is a notable rise in online fraud at this time of year could help us avoid a Christmas tainted by criminal activity.

The festive season sees a significant surge in online shopping as people purchase gifts, decorations, and other items in preparation for the celebrations. Cybercriminals exploit the increased volume of transactions - the rush to buy gifts and the distractions caused by holiday preparations - to deceive unsuspecting consumers into sharing personal information or making fraudulent purchases - through tactics such as fake websites, phishing emails, misleading advertisements, fake promotions and counterfeit or non-existent products.

On some level, fraud victimisation runs counter to the overall ethos of Christmas and the notion of criminal activity doesn’t sit well with the enjoyment and altruism associated with the festivities; cognitive dissonance – the unwillingness for humans to hold competing views – can create an ideal breeding ground for financial exploitation. Emotional research suggests that we may be predisposed to alleviate negative moods with good news (‘50% off discount offer’), whereas people in a positive mood will be motivated to process uplifting messages and avoid depressing (‘we have been unable to deliver your package’) or [real] negative information (‘your online account has been compromised’). Cybercriminals leverage these emotional triggers and others associated with Christmas, such as altruism and generosity, to manipulate individuals into donating to fake charities or contributing to fraudulent causes, in order to extract money or sensitive information. People may also be more relaxed about cybersecurity measures over the festive period as they take annual leave or spend time with family. They may scrutinise online activities less, lower their guard against potential online threats, making them more susceptible to fraud.

During the run up to Christmas, many retailers offer exclusive deals and limited time offers to attract customers, often starting around ‘Black Friday’ in late November. This urgency to take advantage of discounts or special deals may lead people to hastily click on unfamiliar links or make purchases from unverified sources, opening themselves up to fraud.

Gift cards are also a popular choice for presents during the festive season and cybercriminals take advantage of this by offering fake gift card deals or sending phishing emails claiming to offer gift cards, leading recipients to disclose personal information or make payments to fraudulent sources.

Fraudulent websites or fake travel agencies which may deceive consumers into making payments for non-existent or substandard services are an increasing source of scams. With a natural increase in demand and cost for travel during the holidays, scarcity makes people more vulnerable to fraud related to booking accommodation, flights or holiday packages. Even popular Christmas adverts of families being reunited perpetuate the all-or-nothing approach to festive togetherness which can ultimately lead to large financial losses.

The surge in online fraud during Christmas is the result of a number of factors coming together at one time. Awareness and education regarding common fraud schemes and practising caution while making online transactions, such as the “Take 5” approach (www.takefive-stopfraud.org.uk) are critical to avoid victimisation. Always verifying sources, using only secure and established payment methods, and updating cybersecurity measures are essential to mitigate the risks associated with online fraud during the holiday season. Increased vigilance and a critical approach to online activities can significantly reduce the likelihood of falling victim to fraud, ensuring a safer and more secure holiday experience for consumers.

Unfortunately, the old adage of ‘if it looks too good to be true, it probably is’ still applies even whilst we indulge in Christmas festivities!

Dr Gareth Norris is senior lecturer in Psychology at Aberystwyth University, senior fellow of the HE Academy and editorial board member of the journal, Personality and Individual Differences. Fellow Aberystwyth Psychology lecturer Alexandra Brookes’ research focuses upon online fraud victimisation and prevention; she is currently using eye-tracking technology to better understand the decision making process individuals take when falling victim to online fraud.