Mother’s Day is less than a week away – so if you haven’t bought that special someone a present yet, a gift card may seem like an easy option. But easy doesn’t always mean safe.
The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend $2.5 billion on gift cards for mom this year. Over the course of an entire year, we are likely to spend tens of billions of dollars on these got-to-have-it-at-the-last-minute-gifts. But with volume comes opportunity for fraudsters.
Here are some of the more popular ways a scam artist can turn your gift into garbage:
The fraudster steals the numbers off cards sitting on a rack in your local store. He scratches the number off the back to get the PIN and then covers it up again with easy-to-buy replacement stickers. Once he has the number and the PIN, he puts that info into a computer program that pings the retailer’s site, waiting for you to load cash onto the card. Once you do, the scammer is notified and can spend, transfer or sell the card’s value before you ever leave the store.
Fraudsters will also pose on a resale or auction site as a seller. You find an item you want to buy such as a new video game system – usually at a discount. The seller asks you to pay with gift cards. As soon as you send the number and PIN, the money is gone. Not surprisingly, the item you thought you bought never existed.
In a twist on this, the seller has a stolen gift card and needs to launder the funds. He posts an item for sale – you pay for it with a credit card or cash. He uses the stolen gift card to buy the item and have it shipped directly to you. Guess whose name and address are listed if investigators come calling?
Finally – there’s the re-seller scam. You are either trying to sell a gift card you don’t want or buy one at a discount. You exchange numbers and payment. If you are buying the gift card, you may find out that the fraudster drained it as the transaction processed, leaving you with a zero balance. On the flip side, if he is buying a card from you – he gets the number and PIN and then stops payment on the cash coming your way.
Here’s how to protect yourself:
When buying in-store, don’t pick cards right off the rack. Look for ones that are sealed in packaging or stored securely behind the counter. Also check the scratch-off area on the back to look for any evidence of tampering.
If possible, only buy cards online directly from the store or restaurant.
If buying from a secondary gift card market website, check reviews and only buy from or sell to reputable dealers.
Check the gift card balance before andafter purchasing the card to verify the correct balance on the card.
The re-seller of a gift card is responsible for ensuring the correct balance is on the gift card, not the merchant whose name is listed. If you are scammed, some merchants in some situations will replace the funds. Ask, but don’t expect, for help.
When selling a gift card through an online marketplace, do not provide the buyer with the card’s PIN until the transaction is complete.
When purchasing gift cards online, be leery of auction sites selling gift cards at a discount or in bulk.
If you have been victimized by this online scam or any other cyber fraud, be sure to also report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.govor call your local FBI office.