How cards can protect you against back-to-school scams

Here's how to identify fraudulent promotions and use your cards to fight back

Rebecca Lake
Personal Finance Writer
Making complex credit topics simple

Protect yourself against back-to-school scams using your cards

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The back-to-school shopping season is underway and parents are set to spend $684.79 on average this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Finding great deals on back to school supplies may be on the agenda, but you also should take precautions against being a victim of recent scams.

Parents, students and teachers are all potential targets for back-to-school scams, says Daniel Smith, head of security research at Radware, a global cyber security company. All three can be targeted in different ways.

Knowing how to recognize scams is the first line of defense. Using a credit card to protect yourself is the second.

See related: 9 credit card tips for scoring better back-to-school deals

Back-to-school fraud schemes and how to protect yourself:

Back-to-school common shopping scams

The type of back-to-school fraud you may encounter depends largely on whether you’re a parent, student or teacher.

“Shoppers can expect the same scams they face on a daily basis, but with returning to school as the bait,” says Smith. “They can expect to be targeted by skimmers, phishing campaigns, identity theft, drive-by downloads and fake-donation scams.”

  • The Better Business Bureau warns against common back-to-school shopping scams, involving text messages, social media and online advertisements.
  • For instance, you may receive a text saying you’ve won a back-to-school shopping spree or see an ad on Facebook or another website advertising back-to-school promotions.
  • These ads can lead you to fake storefronts that try to lure you into entering your financial information.

Beware of fake retail websites

Lindsey Havens, senior marketing manager at PhishLabs, a company that provides phishing protection services, says these fake retail websites look deceptively like the real thing.

“Their designs can be very sophisticated and possibly have stolen logos and even a .com domain,” says Havens.

  • These sites offer popular brands such as clothing and electronics at low prices, which is appealing to back-to-school shoppers, but buyers end up purchasing fakes.
  • In the worst-case scenario, “the buyer gets nothing at all” for their money.

Smith says teachers face similar shopping schemes related to online sales for supplies, free downloads or digital products. They may be redirected to fraudulent sites or download files that carry malware.

“Shoppers can expect the same scams they face on a daily basis, but with returning to school as the bait. They can expect to be targeted by skimmers, phishing campaigns, identity theft, drive-by downloads and fake-donation scams.”

Grant, scholarship and additional fee scams

These hoaxes aren’t limited to shopping either. “Back-to-school scams can be pretty broad,” says Jeff White, senior financial analyst at FitSmallBusiness.com.

  • For instance, parents may be asked to pay additional fees by a scammer who’s claiming to be a representative of their child’s school.
  • Scammers may also contact parents to advise them they owe the IRS money for a student tax that doesn’t exist.

White says grants and scholarships have huge fraud potential.

  • Students may be offered a grant or scholarship, only to be told they have to pay a processing or initiation fee to get free money for school.
  • They (or their parents) pay the fee, but the scholarship or grant never materializes.

Dorm rent tricks target college students

Yet another back-to-school scam targets students who are renting versus living in dorms.

  • Securing the ideal off-campus rental for college students can sometimes be an open door to fraud for the uninitiated, says John Buzzard, industry fraud specialist at CO-OP Financial Services, a payments and financial technology provider to credit unions.
  • Scammers may ask for a credit card to hold your spot for a rental that doesn’t exist, he says.

Credit cards offer protection for shoppers

Paying for back-to-school expenses with a credit card can minimize the potential for losses related to a back-to-school fraud.

Here are the most important features that can protect you:

  • Basic protection: The Fair Credit Billing Act offers protection if you buy something that ends up being defective or damaged. This Act also protects you in the event of unauthorized charges. There are certain rules you must follow – such as filing a dispute with your credit card company within 60 days – but it can go a long way toward helping you recover what you spent if you get scammed.
  • Purchase protection: Purchase protection covers items that are damaged, lost or stolen, but unlike basic protection, which covers all credit cards, this one only applies to specific cards. If your card offers purchase protection, there may be limits on when you can file a claim or how much your credit card company will reimburse you for. Cards that offer purchase protection include Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve and Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express.
  • Return protection: If a back-to-school scammer has taken your money and run, you could try chasing them down for a refund but that may not be easy. The better option may be to use your card’s return protection. Return protection allows you to file a claim for a refund, up to a certain limit, when a seller won’t give you your money back. Cards that offer return protection include Citi Double Cash Card and Chase Freedom.
  • Zero liability guarantee: Zero-liability policies mean you’re not held financially responsible if someone uses your credit card fraudulently. Most major card issuers have zero liability policies in place, including Discover, American Express, Chase, Citi and Capital One.

See related: Purchase protection benefits: What they are, how to use them

“If you’ve fallen victim to a scam, reach out to your bank or credit card company as soon as you know.”

Back-to-school card safety tips

Smith and Buzzard offer these essential tips for protecting your cards from scams while back-to-school shopping:

  • Have specific cards designated for specific purchases so you can isolate a compromise if it happens.
  • If you shop online, utilize one-time card numbers for your purchase.
  • Monitor your account for unusual transactions. Alerts that deliver warnings to the cardholder when anomalous activity occurs take the guesswork out of tracking your account. 
  • If your card offers controls that enable the cardholder to turn their payment cards on and off at will, use them. 
  • These controls can be particularly valuable if you’re a parent adding a college student to your card as an authorized user – they may not always be vigilant about monitoring the account.
  • Patronize known retailers and take a pass on online deals that seem too good to be true. 
  • Protect yourself online by installing anti-virus and anti-malware software on your devices and skip transferring financial information over public Wi-Fi.
  • College students shouldn't share their credit card information and online passwords with anyone and be mindful of what they’re sharing on their social accounts. “Social media delivers a powerful wallop by enabling criminals to constantly target naïve consumers by offering them ‘get rich quick’ deposit scams, also known as ‘card cracking,’” Buzzard says.
  • When it comes to scholarship and grant scams, or school-related scams in general, “read up on the organization reaching out to you and contact them directly about the phone call or email you’ve received, but only use the official correspondence methods listed on their website,” Smith says.
  • Contact your school’s financial aid office to see if they’ve heard of the organization offering your the scholarship and know how the scholarship or grant works.
  • Be on the lookout for red flags that could signal a scam, such as being asked to pay a fee to get a scholarship, provide your bank account information or share your Social Security number over the phone.
  • If you think you’ve been scammed, quick action is key. Report a suspected scam to the Federal Trade Commission and your state attorney general. Then, do damage control with your financial accounts.

“If you’ve fallen victim to a scam, reach out to your bank or credit card company as soon as you know,” says White. “You might be able to stop payment to these bogus businesses, or you might have a level of fraud protection that will help you recoup anything you’ve lost.”


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Updated: 10-20-2018