Gift Card Scams 2021 – Protect Yourself
Gift Card Scams – Protect yourself and your loved ones this holiday season
Requesting gift cards is a common trick that con artists use to steal money from people. While most payment processors, credit cards, and banks have consumer protections built right in, there are fewer protections available for gift cards. Once bad actors get hold of your gift card numbers and spend the money, it’s gone.
Gift card scammers usually start by demanding payment for something. They may pose as a family member or friend in desperate need of money, or they may pretend to be a business or government agency claiming you owe them money. They’ll add a sense of urgency by claiming that something terrible will happen if you don’t make the payment quickly. It’s not true, of course - it’s a lie designed to make you so anxious you respond without thinking. Regardless of who they claim to be, the common factor is they’ll request gift cards as payment.
Once you’ve purchased the gift card, the scammer will ask for the card number and PIN over email or phone. Once they have those, they’ve got access to the money you’ve loaded onto the card, and you’re left with no way to get that money back.
Gift cards are great for their intended purpose: as a special gift, to let someone know you’re thinking about them, while giving them flexibility to choose something nice for themselves. But they’re not meant to be a form of payment, and no legitimate business or government agency will ever ask for them. If someone claiming to be the power company is threatening to shut off your power if you don’t pay them in gift cards, it’s a scam. If someone sends you a large check and asks for the excess back in gift cards, that’s a scam, too.
We’ll talk about how specific gift card scams work, as well as direct you to resources at various retailers, below. If you’ve fallen victim to gift card scammers, you should always reach out to customer support at the retailer associated with the gift card. If the card hasn’t been used, they may be able to deactivate it. However, if the card has been used, there’s usually nothing they can do. In that case, you should contact the Federal Trade Commission to report it, but there may not be any way to get your money back.
Steam card scams
Steam was one of the first major digital storefronts for computer games, and it’s still the largest one, as significant competitors have only really emerged over the last few years. That means that gift cards for Steam are very popular.
Unfortunately, it also means that scams around Steam gift cards are also becoming very popular. If someone contacts you demanding that you pay a bill, or claiming that you owe taxes, or even asking you for help moving countries, Steam cards aren’t going to do any of those things. They’re only good for buying video games. Scammers may use the cards themselves, or they may sell the cards at a discount to third parties.
If you’ve been scammed into buying Steam gift cards, but haven’t turned them over to the scammer, you might be able to get a refund. But once someone activates the gift card, that money is gone. You can learn more about the specific options available to scam victims at Steam’s website.
eBay gift card scams
One of the most common eBay scams is also a great example of how this scam works in general. Earlier this year, a rash of people reported getting a phone call from someone claiming to be an AT&T representative. They said that eBay was running a promotion to raise awareness of their gift cards. If you paid for $450 of your AT&T bill in eBay gift cards, eBay would match.
To some people, that may make sense on the surface. We live in a world where credit card companies throw in free memberships to Spotify and phone companies offer Netflix on the house. That kind of cross-company promotion isn’t unthinkable. But it’s weird enough that it should be suspicious. Remember, no utility or bill is going to accept gift card payments.
You can find more information about these scams, including which steps to take, at eBay’s website. Just remember that at a certain point in a gift card scam, your money becomes irretrievable. You may or may not be able to receive help from eBay.
Amazon gift card scams
Amazon is the tenth largest company in the world according to Forbes. Its online store is a global powerhouse, even if the company makes its real money by hosting a significant percentage of the internet through Amazon Web Services (AWS). With so much presence and clout, it makes sense that Amazon would also be one of the biggest targets for gift card scams.
Amazon’s own scams page highlights some of the greatest hits. Many of them are the same ones we’ve already discussed, where people posing as companies or family request gift cards as payment or help. But there’s a whole other category of fraud around Amazon, as well. People claiming to represent Amazon will cold-call potential victims with fake job offers. Upon accepting the fake position, they’ll claim that you need to purchase a startup kit using Amazon gift cards in order to start the job. Amazon notes that their actual jobs do not require equipment purchases.
Because of their popularity, Amazon gift cards are also often used as bait in online traps, including fake surveys meant to collect information for scammers or fraudulent links promising free gift cards that instead lead to malware-ridden sites that affect your computer. This has been a popular scam over the last couple of years, and could infect your computer with trojans that steal your banking credentials and other personal info. (A good computer security program like Sophos Home can help protect you from fake websites, but it’s important to do your part, as well, by not clicking fraudulent links.)
Apple gift card scams
From iTunes music to software and in-app purchases, Apple’s digital platform is a mainstay of the modern world. While iPhone sales may not be as robust as they once were, they still represent nearly half of all smartphone users. That makes Apple’s gift cards very valuable for scammers to resell or even to use directly.
As with all scams, you can try to contact Apple support if you find yourself a victim. If you reach someone before the scammer uses the card, you may be able to get the card frozen. But again, once the card is used, there’s not much you can do.
Other gift cards
Gift card fraud is big business, making up about a quarter of reported scams. And it isn’t exclusive to online retailers. Stores like Walmart and Target are also commonly targeted. It’s worth noting that most major retailers impose a limit on how many gift cards you can purchase at once, or at least try to put barriers in place to prevent you from buying too many at once. If your purchasing behavior is raising flags at the store, consider that there may be a reason for that and think twice before you purchase those cards.
Demanding fake payments in gift cards isn’t the only kind of fraud out there. Sometimes, a legitimate gift card purchase is intercepted before it’s even made. Scammers may remove the security tape, write down the gift card number and PIN, and replace the security tape with a fake. Then, they wait for the card to be activated upon sale, and spend it. While this kind of fraud isn’t as common, it does happen. If you’re worried about it, look carefully at gift cards when you purchase them for signs of tampering. You should also purchase your gift cards close to the register, where you know that cashiers have had their eyes on them all day.
Use gift cards well and wisely
There’s no reason to avoid buying gift cards completely. They can be a great way to show someone that you care. Just make sure that you never buy a gift card under pressure, especially from someone you don’t know. If someone claiming to be a family member, friend, or coworker demands gift cards, verify their identity separately.
Since gift card scams are harder to recover from than other forms of fraud, it’s extra important to be aware of how these scammers operate and to do your due diligence up front, before the fraud takes place.