Person holding phone in one hand and card in the other

How to Recognize, Report and Recover from a Gift Card Scam

Gift cards are popular among consumers because they can be used globally to purchase all types of goods and services. However, scammers have found new ways to take advantage of the non-traceable benefits of gift cards. 

Recognize

Gift cards are a top payment method among scammers for multiple reasons. First, most big box stores, retailers, and name brands offer gift cards, making them readily available to find and purchase, either in-person or online. In addition, other forms of payment (such as credit/debit or wire transfer) have protections in place, whereas gift cards are more like cash. Once the money is gone, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to trace it or get it back. Lastly, scammers don’t have to convince you to provide your banking or credit card information, they just need the gift card number and PIN.

Common Tactics

Gift card scams can come in different shapes and sizes, however most of them use the same tactics to steal money from you. Keep your eyes peeled for these common tactics:

  • They create a sense of urgency saying you need to act quickly.
  • They want to stay on the line with you while you go to the store to purchase the gift cards.
  • They tell you to buy gift cards at multiple different stores. This is so cashiers don’t get suspicious.
  • They tell you which gift card to buy. They might say to put money on an eBay, Google Play, Target, or iTunes gift card. 
  • They ask you for the gift card number and PIN. 

Common Scenarios

Although scammers typically follow the common tactics above, they will use different stories to trick you into sending them money in the form of gift cards. Look out for these types of scams:

Office Bonus Scam: You receive an email appearing to be from your boss with “URGENT” in the subject line. She’s asking you to purchase 10 $500 gift cards and email the pins for the office bonuses.

Government Imposter Scam: You receive a phone call from someone claiming to be from the government, such as the IRS, the Social Security Administration or Medicare/Medicaid. They threaten fines or jail time if you don’t pay taxes or fees using gift cards.

Romance Scam: You meet someone online. After some time spent getting to know each other, they ask you to send them gift cards to help them pay for some type of emergency, such as illness or hospitalization.

Tech Support Scam: Someone calls you from tech support explaining that something is wrong with your computer, but to fix it you need to send gift cards as payment right away.

Sweepstake Scam: You get an email, text or phone call claiming you won a sweepstakes, but you need to pay fees using gift cards before you can receive your prize and you don’t remember entering a sweepstakes. 

Family Emergency Scam: You receive an urgent phone call from someone claiming a family member or close friend is in jail or hospitalized and needs financial help. They tell you that the only form of payment they accept is gift cards.

Utility Scam: Someone claiming to be from one of your utility companies threatens to shut off your services if you don’t pay a fee using gift cards.

Report

Even though you may not be able to get your money back, it is imperative that you report to help others avoid being scammed. As a society, the more people that report scams, the more national reporting data that is collected and the better chance law enforcement has to catch the criminals and decrease online crime. There are multiple steps you can to take when reporting a gift card scam:

Step 1: Report the Scam to Local Law Enforcement Immediately

If you sent gift cards to a scammer, call your local law enforcement on the non-emergency line and file a report. Provide them with all the information you have regarding the scam, including how the scammer contacted you and the type of gift cards you sent. A police report can help when you are speaking with the card issuer.

Step 2: Contact the Company that Issued the Gift Card

After you have filed a police report, contact the company that issued the gift card. Be sure to hang on to the gift card and your receipt. You may need to provide this information to the card issuer. There is a possibility that if the money is still on the card, the company may be able to put a freeze on the gift card.

Below is a list of contact information for common gift card issuers. However, this is not an exhaustive list. If you don’t see the company’s contact information here, look for their contact information on the card itself or search for their contact information online.

Amazon: Call Amazon’s Customer Protection Review team at 888-280-4331. 

American Express: Call American Express Customer Support at 888-846-4308.

Ebay: Contact Ebay Customer Service.

Google Play: Go to Google Play Help to report the scam.

iTunes: Call Apple Support at 800-275-2273. When prompted, say “gift card”.

Target: Call Target GiftCard Services at 800-544-2943.

VISA: Call VISA Customer Support at 800-847-2911.

Walmart: Call Walmart Customer Service at 800-925-6278.

Step 3: Report the Scam to the Federal Trade Commission

Once you’ve filed a police report and contacted the gift card issuer, report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov, even if you didn’t send the gift cards to the scammer. This will help law enforcement catch future scammers.

Recover

After you’ve experienced a gift card scam and taken the initiative to report to the appropriate entities, including law enforcement and the gift card issuer, it’s time to recover and reinforce your online safety. By equipping yourself with a few simple tools and improving your online security, you can better protect yourself and prepare for scamming attempts in the future.

Learn and Follow the Three Golden Rules

Slow it down — Scammers often create a sense of urgency so that they can bypass your better instincts. Take your time and ask questions to avoid being rushed into a bad situation. 

Spot check — Do your research to double check the details you’re getting. If you get an unexpected phone call, hang up. Then look up the bank, agency or organization that’s supposedly calling and get in touch directly.

Stop! Don’t send — No reputable person or agency will ever demand payment on the spot. Often, scammers tell you to go buy gift cards—which are meant only to be given as a gift, not as payment under threat. So if you think the payment feels fishy, it probably is.

Take 5 Steps for Better Online Security

  1. Implement Multi Factor Authentication (MFA): Passwords are generally easy for scammers to crack, and even if you use strong passphrases, there’s still the possibility that a cybercriminal can obtain your passphrase in a data breach. Implementing MFA is a great way to maximize your security and ensure that you are the only one who can gain access to your accounts. MFA should be implemented on all accounts where it is available. Check your account’s security settings to see if it is something you can set up.
  2. Update Your Privacy Settings: Privacy settings allow you to control your personal information (name, address, phone number, date of birth, financial details, photos or videos, etc) and how that information is used. Review your privacy settings on all of your accounts including your social media accounts. Consider restricting who can see your friends list, contacts, photos and posts.
  3. Activate Automatic Updates: Automatic updates are a set of changes to an app, software or operating system that are automatically pushed by the developer to fix or improve it. Oftentimes, cybercriminals take advantage of security flaws to plant malicious software on your devices. By activating automatic updates, you will automatically patch security vulnerabilities to protect your data.
  4. Create Strong Passphrases: A strong passphrase is a string of unrelated words separated by hyphen, space, period, capitalized first letter or number. Use passphrases that are longer than 15 characters and include multiple words that do not have any obvious connection between them. The key to passphrases is randomness. Don’t repeat your passphrases between accounts and consider using a password manager to help you remember.
  5. Learn the Elements of a Phishing Attempt: Familiarize yourself with the elements of a phishing email. Phishing emails tend to include a sense of urgency and multiple grammar and spelling errors. If they are asking you to reveal personal information, be suspicious. If you get a strange email, try contacting the company another way to confirm they sent that email. If the email is suspicious, mark it as spam.

By taking these simple steps to strengthen your online security, you are setting yourself up for a safer online experience. Visit FightCybercrime.org to learn how to recognize, report and recover from other common scams.