Shoppers looking for a last-minute gift for a child may be tempted by an email advertising a “handwritten letter from Santa to your child” or promising a personalized Christmas Day phone call from the Jolly Old Elf. Before you hand over your credit card number, however, check that your scam alert button isn’t glowing redder than Rudolph’s nose. While several legitimate companies offer these services, many others may be part of a Santa scam.

The Santa scam starts when you click on the email link. The link takes you to a website that promises a special package deal, say a customized letter from Santa and an “official” certification that the recipient is on his “nice” list. To nudge you to act quickly, there may be a free shipping special that ends in just a few hours. (Check out the Consumer Reports 2015 Naughty & Nice List.)

In the best-case scenario of the Santa scam, the Santa impostor site simply takes your money without rendering the service you paid for.  In the worst-case scenario, you have just shared your credit card information with scammers, who can now use it for identity theft.

Another way in which you could be scammed: The fraudulent website convinces you that it’s legitimate because it doesn’t ask for credit card information. Instead, it asks for plenty of personal information, such as your full name, address, and phone number—information it then sells to other scammers or identity thieves.  

Checking It Twice

Follow these five tips to spot—and avoid—the Santa scam and other online scams:

  • Ignore calls for immediate action. Many scams try to get you to act before you think by creating a sense of urgency. Don’t do it.
  • Look before you link. Hover the mouse over the email link to check the source. Scammers make the link look real but the true destination will be revealed on the lower left corner of your email screen.
  • Confirm the contact information. Check that the address and phone number are real. You can also do a quick search at the Better Business Bureau.
  • Pay through a secure connection. Before you enter your credit card information, be sure the URL starts with “https”—the “s” stands for “secure”—and has a lock icon in the browser bar.
  • Check grammar and spelling. Typos and bad grammar are a clue that you have landed on a scam website.

A letter or call from Santa can make the holiday memorable for a young child. But if you're aware of the Santa scam, you can take care that you don’t end up with coal in your stocking.