During the holiday shopping season, there are so many good deals that sometimes it's hard to know what's too good to be true. When actual retailers have legitimate 50% off sales, that makes it hard to spot a similar deal that's actually a scam.
It's important to be diligent as you do your holiday shopping. There are a number of scams that can separate you from your hard-earned money. Some are actually criminal -- people literally stealing from you -- while others employ tricky or deceptive practices. These are technically legal, but they can still result in you feeling shortchanged.
Bait and switch
While most major retailers no longer do this, bait and switch involves advertising an item at one price, then not having it (or maybe only having one or two). Once the consumer gets to the store, the original item is not available, but a pricier similar one is.
Another example of bait and switch is when one price gets advertised and you can buy the item at the price, but what you get isn't everything you need. Maybe it's a $399 laptop that doesn't come with a power cord or a discounted printer missing cords and ink cartridges.
Look at the whole price of any purchase and know exactly what you intend to buy. If an ad lures you in, but the deal is different (or not available) when you get there, it's OK to move on.
Watch out for fakes
The internet is full of fake princes, false lotteries, and all sorts of other scams designed to trick you out of your credit card or bank account information. One common one is criminals sending emails offering coupons to familiar sites. If you go to redeem the deal, you will need to provide personal information or credit card numbers, which will then be stolen.
Some of these emails, pop-ups, and even fake websites are very well done, but there are generally tells. First, in any email, look at the actual address it came from, not just the name. In many cases these emails use domains that aren't quite the same as the actual sites for the retailers they purport to be representing.
You can also spot a fake site by looking at spelling. Major retailers may make an occasional error, but many of the fraudulent ones are littered with mistakes.
Lastly, use common sense. Why would Amazon be offering you 80% off but require you to input your bank account info? Would even a desperate retailer like Sears give you $50 free just for signing up (with a credit card, of course)? When something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Model number games
Moving back to a scam that's legal, but a bit shady, watch out for retailers playing model number games. This happens with big-ticket electronics and appliances more than with other goods, but it can occur in nearly any product category.
Typically a company will have a model, let's say a 50-inch 4k TV with all the bells and whistles. That model, the 4KTV50, may sell for $849 without discounts. At holiday time, a very similar product, the 4KTV50-S, shows up for $299. Of course, the new model has lower-end specs, doesn't come with the same resolution quality, and might have other technical shortcomings.
This type of change isn't always a scam meant to defraud or trick customers, but it can happen anyway. Don't just look at what you're buying on the surface -- dig in deep to make sure you're getting exactly what you think you are.
Beware of shipping scams
During the holidays, people often get packages they were not expecting and did not order themselves. Scammers prey on that confusion with shipping software tricks.
None of the major carriers (and probably none of the minor ones) require you to download software to facilitate a delivery. UPS, FedEx, and even the United States Postal Service all allow you to track deliveries on their websites. Any email asking you to download something so an item can be delivered is really just asking you to download malware or a virus.
The holiday shopping season is already stressful enough with getting the right gifts and getting them in time, but it can be made even worse if you run into some shady deals. Keep your eyes open for these scams and you can be sure you aren't being taken for a ride.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool recommends FedEx. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.