Steve Weisman: Four top holiday scams -- Here's how to protect those presents!

Holiday shopping can be risky, but taking a few simple precautions can protect you from being victimized by a scamming Grinch.

Scam artists, the only criminals we refer to as "artists" are particularly busy this time of year exploiting every aspect of the holiday season to make you a victim of identity theft.

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Here are four of the top holiday scams we can expect this year.

1. Phony retail websites

Many of us do the bulk of our gift shopping online. Unfortunately, scammers are adept at constructing legitimate appearing websites offering great products at irresistibly low prices. However, these bogus websites will share your credit card information with a scammer while you wait for a product that never arrives.

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If the price is too good to be true, you should immediately be skeptical. You may want to limit your online shopping to well-known, legitimate retailers. Even then, make sure you are actually on their website and not that of a scammer. You can do this by going to https://www.whois.com/whois/ and finding out who actually owns the website you are considering shopping on. If the Target website you are on is registered to someone in Nigeria, you can be sure it is a scam. You can also go to https://www.resellerratings.com/ for reviews about particular merchants to find out if they are legitimate.

2. Phony coupons

During the holiday season, online coupon scams are common. These phony coupons can appear as attachments to emails and text messages, or on social media, particularly Facebook. In many coupon scams you are asked to complete a survey to qualify for the coupon. The information provided in the survey, where they sometimes even ask for your credit card, will be used to steal your identity.

Once again, if the coupon appears too good to be true, it is usually a scam. One way to determine if a coupon is legitimate is to look for the expiration date found on most coupons. Many scam coupons do not have expiration dates. Instead of trusting coupons sent through text, email or social media, go directly to the company’s website where you will be able to find any real coupons they’re offering.

3. Porch pirates

Thieves recognize that millions of Americans shop online, having their goods shipped to their home.  Porch pirates drive through neighborhoods in search of delivered packages left on the doorsteps of homes ready to be stolen.

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There are a number of ways you can avoid becoming a victim of this scam. If you are expecting a delivery and will not be home when it is delivered, ask a neighbor to keep an eye out for any delivery; require a signature for deliveries, which is an option you can choose with all of the major delivery services such as UPS or Federal Express;   and Amazon Prime members can use the Amazon Key Home Kit, which includes a lock, security camera and the Amazon Key app which enables you to unlock your door through the app and let the delivery person enter your home while the security camera monitors the delivery person throughout the delivery.

4. Gift card scams

In one common gift card scam, scammers locate a rack of gift cards in-store and using handheld scanners, read the barcode on the back of the card and the number on the front. They then replace the card in the display rack and periodically check with the retailer online or through an 800 number to find out when the card has been purchased and activated. They then either create a counterfeit card using the information they stole or merely use the information to make online purchases.

In another gift card scam, scammers place a sticker with a new barcode over the existing barcode on the back of the gift card before returning it to the rack. When the particular gift card is purchased, the funds loaded onto the card are credited to the card of the scammer.

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Only purchase gift cards from behind the customer service desk. If the card is supposed to have been preloaded, ask the clerk to scan the card to confirm that the card is still fully valued. Check out any card that you purchase to see if the PIN, which is generally covered for security reasons, has been uncovered. You should also examine the barcode to make sure that it wasn’t added as a sticker by a scammer.

Holiday shopping can be risky, but taking a few simple precautions can protect you from being victimized by a scamming Grinch.

Steve Weisman is a Senior Lecturer in Law, Taxation and Financial Planning at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. He is also the author and creator of www.scamicide.com.

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