How to recognize holiday gift card scams

Here's a rundown of popular gift card scams and how you can avoid becoming a victim this holiday season.

If, instead of the painstaking work involved in picking out the perfect present for each relative and friend, you prefer getting gift cards, watch out! It’s not uncommon to lose money to a gift card scammer, especially during the holidays.

“The reason fraudsters are using gift cards is that it creates some anonymity,” says Shelley Hunter, aka “Gift Card Girlfriend” at GiftCards.com. “If someone gives me a gift card, there's no real tracking of who I am if I use that gift card. It really is a form of money laundering.”

Once the scammer has the gift card, he or she can use it to buy or sell things, or to put the card itself on the block via a secondhand marketplace. Because of gift cards’ lucrative potential, people have come up with a variety of ways to steal them. Here’s a rundown of five popular gift card scams and how you can avoid becoming a victim this holiday season. 

1. The iTunes and Amazon gift card scams

How the scam works: A scammer may use many tactics to sell you on this scam, including (but not limited to):

  • Pretending to be the IRS demanding you pay taxes.
  • Impersonating a family member or loved one in need.
  • Saying you won a large monetary prize but need to make a small payment before you can get it.
  • Selling you a big-ticket item online (that you will never receive).

The red flag you is that the person will request that you make a payment using an iTunes or Amazon gift card. Once you tell the scammer the card’s code to “make a payment,” you’ve lost control of the funds on the card. Your thief may then drain the cash on the card or sell the card online.

How to avoid being a victim: Like many store-branded gift cards, iTunes and Amazon gift cards can only be used on iTunes or Amazon.com, respectively. No company or government agency is going to ask for payment via gift cards. They cannot be used to pay taxes, debts, utility bills or bail bonds, or to make any purchases outside the iTunes or Amazon.com environments.

“It's just a real red flag if anybody ever asks you — regardless of a friend in trouble or you being investigated — if the outcome is ‘the only way you can make this go away is to use a gift card,’” says Hunter. “Hang up the phone and don’t worry about it. It's not real.”

After you hang up, report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at ftc.gov/complaint. If you’ve already shared the gift card’s code, there may not be a way for you to reclaim the lost funds. But it may be worth your time to contact customer service at iTunes or Amazon. Someone there may be able to disable the card (if all is not yet lost). At the very least, you can  report what happened and see if you can get your money back.

2. The stolen-card-number scam

How the scam works: A thief will walk into a store with gift cards on display, as you’ll find in many drugstores, convenience or grocery stores. Your card conniver will then record a card’s identification number and replace it on the display.

“Gift cards are increasingly usable without having the physical plastic,” says Hunter. “That is kind of what is driving these scams — that you don’t need the physical card to make a purchase.”

The scammer may wait around the store to see if someone buys the gift card or wait a few days to see if it has a balance. The thief can check the card’s balance over the phone, as many retailers allow. If the card is loaded, the thief can use the funds to make online purchases or may even be able to use the card’s number in stores.

How to avoid being a victim: It’s a little tricky to avoid this scam, especially if you are buying gift cards for others in advance of a major holiday. For ease, thieves may only copy the gift card numbers at the front of the rack. Hunter suggests that choosing a card in the middle or the back of the rack could help thwart scammers. You should also carefully examine the packaging before you buy a card to ensure that there’s been no tampering.

“The people doing this are really good; it's not sloppy, so check carefully,” says Hunter.

You may also want to purchase gift cards with card numbers that are less accessible to thieves, like those kept behind the counter or those purchased online through the retailer’s website.

“E-gift cards give consumers another way to protect themselves from gift card fraud,” says Hunter, as there is a documentation of the purchase and whom the gift card was sent to via email. Hunter adds that e-gift cards are much safer than purchasing a gift card at the grocery store to give as a gift.

“The grocery store doesn't know what happened to that gift card. With an e-gift card, the merchant has a record of the transaction and so do you.”

3. The concerned-buyer scam

How the scam works: This scam works if you are the one reselling a gift card you don’t need for extra cash. Let’s say you use a peer-to-peer website like Craigslist.com to post a classified ad for the gift card you are selling and receive an inquiry from a potential buyer. The buyer will ask you to confirm the card’s balance by making a three-way call to the issuer with the buyer on the line.

You may be prompted to say or enter the card’s number in using the dialpad to check the card’s balance. Again, all the scammer needs to gain access to the card’s balance is that card number.

When you enter the card's number via the dial pad, the different numbers make different tones. A buyer conducting the scam will record the numbers you enter down based on the different tones. By the time the thief “changes” his or her mind and no longer wants to purchase the card, the deed is done. That person will have already gained access to the balance and will be able to use the card to make purchases.

How to avoid being a victim: Do not under any circumstances conduct a three-way call with a potential buyer to confirm the card’s balance. In addition, don’t give up the card number before receiving payment. If you want to sell your gift card, use a reputable reseller that will guarantee your money back if you’re scammed, like GiftCardGranny.com or Cardpool.com.

4. The auction-website scam

How the scam works: Using an auction website like Giftcards.com or GiftcardGranny.com to buy unwanted gift cards from resellers is a great way to save money. You can use the websites to search for discounted gift cards (pay less than the card’s balance) or as an easy way to compare multiple gift cards you’re considering buying. However, you may not always get what you paid for.

Many of the websites offer e-gifts card in addition to physical gift cards. They will accept a gift card code instead of requesting the seller mail in the physical gift card before they can be paid. The resale companies usually confirm the balance. After it’s confirmed, the person selling the card might use the code or physical card, so by the time you, the buyer, receives the card or code, there’s little or no money left on the  card.

How to avoid being a victim: If you are going to buy a gift card from a reseller’s website, make sure it guarantees your money back in case you are scammed.

5. The at-the-register scam

How the scam works: You can still get scammed if you buy a gift card from behind the register, but the sales associate would have to be in on the scam. The associate may have several identical gift cards behind the counter, so it’s easy to put the money you pay on one card and give you another card with no balance. The associate may then stack up the cards to spend, resell the loaded gift cards online for cash, or use the “auction-website scam” above.

How to avoid being a victim: Pay attention. Don’t look through your purse or wallet while the cashier is loading the gift card with the amount you request. Pay attention to what the cashier is doing behind the counter so he/she can’t make a quick switch. In addition, you should examine the purchase receipt to make sure the card’s number matches the one you purchased.

MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.

MagnifyMoney


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