Gift cards have become a multibillion-dollar industry, a gift that always fits and stands up to social distancing. Worldwide, consumers spent billions on gift cards last year. However, that total comes with an asterisk — it includes the gift cards on which scammers increasingly rely to extract payment from their victims.
An in-depth investigative study by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) finds an increase in reports of scams involving gift cards, with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses over the last few years. The study — Gift Card Payment Scams: BBB Reveals Why Scammers Love Gift Cards — looks at the scope of fraud involving gift cards as a payment method, the way various cards work, the scammers who exploit them, the efforts to combat the scams and the steps that the industry can take to further tackle this scourge. Read the full gift card scam study.
According to the study, payment by gift card is a common thread among many scams that have been the subject of previous BBB studies, including government impersonators, business email compromise frauds, tech support frauds, romance scams, fake check scams, prize/sweepstakes scams, and online sales of nonexistent vehicles.
“If you’re asked to make payment via gift card for whatever reason, you almost certainly are dealing with a scam,” said Michelle L. Corey, BBB St. Louis president and CEO. “Gift cards don’t carry the same protections as credit or debit cards, so funds spent on gift cards are funds you cannot get back.”
Available data suggests that gift card payment scams are growing fast. The losses reported to BBB Scam Tracker for gift card payment types nearly tripled between 2017 and 2020, with a median loss of $700 in 2020; consumers over 65 were more likely to lose money than younger consumers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that roughly one in four people who lost money to a scam not related to an online purchase paid with a gift card, with reported losses of $245 million since 2017.
Typically when gift cards are requested as payment in scams, the scammer instructs the consumer to buy a gift card — or several — and either read the numbers on the back over the phone or send a photo of the numbers on the back. If victims ask questions about why gift cards are being used for payment, scammers invent a plausible excuse, such as that the government has recently entered a contract with a gift card company to handle transactions. Commonly requested gift cards include eBay, Google Play, Target, iTunes, Amazon, and Steam, an online gaming company. The scammer might promise to reimburse the consumer later or may send a check in advance for the consumer to deposit. In reality, the funds do not materialize or the check is invalid, and the consumer has lost the funds forever.
Gift cards cannot be tracked easily and do not carry the same legal protections as credit or debit cards, making them an attractive option for scammers. While the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) has extensive provisions governing telemarketing — which prohibit the use of credit cards, debit cards, and reloadable cards such as Green Dot cards — it does not currently prohibit the use of gift cards in telemarketing.
A Springfield, Missouri, woman in her 80s received a call in November 2020 from someone who claimed to be with Apple and told her that her iCloud storage was compromised. The woman was instructed to buy gift cards in order to protect her data and tell any cashier who questioned the transaction that they were gifts for grandchildren. She subsequently purchased 29 $500 gift cards to Target and Walmart, scratching off the numbers on the back and photographing them with her phone. In total, the woman lost $14,500.
Red flags to know and avoid gift card scams:
- Government agencies requesting payment. No government agency ever requests money through gift cards.
- Statements that buying gift cards is a safe way to make a payment. Providing the numbers for a gift card is like sending cash, and the money is rarely recoverable. Gift card payment requests are a big red flag for a scam.
- Keep the receipt when buying a gift card. Keep the physical card as well. These may help prove that the card was paid for and activated if problems arise later.
- Inspect the card carefully before buying it to be sure it has not been tampered with. Some scammers open the card to get the numbers on the back so that they can take the money when the card is later activated.
A multi-pronged fight against gift card scams aims to punish fraudsters who take advantage of gift cards and strengthen protections for consumers. Authorities have cracked down on scams that rely on gift card payments, including government impostor scams. Law enforcement has prosecuted so-called “money mules” who funnel the funds transferred via gift cards; in November 2020, a federal court in Tampa, Florida sentenced a man to more than five years in prison for laundering gift cards illegally obtained by scammers through an online redemption site he operated. State attorneys general have reached settlements with major retailers to make changes in their gift card policies aimed at stopping fraudulent purchases.
In addition to telling consumers how to recognize and avoid gift card scams, the report recommends:
- The FTC should consider amending the Telemarketing Sales Rule to prohibit payment with gift cards.
- The industry should continue to educate the public about the potential pitfalls of gift cards by:
- Including warnings directly on the cards
- Providing warnings on gift card display racks
- Training and educating front line tellers and cashiers
- Including a warning on screen at the point-of-sale where a victim can read it before completing the transaction
- The industry should consider:
- Additional efforts to limit large dollar volume gift cards and on how many can be purchased on one day
- Prohibiting the ability to purchase gift cards with other gift cards
- Imposing a waiting period between when cards are purchased and when they can be used, at least for online purchases. Once the immediate pressure from the scammer is relieved, victims often recognize it is a scam, and thus with a bit more time could try to stop the transaction.
- Mining their data on gift card fraud to look for patterns and share that information with appropriate law enforcement
- Tracking the speed and location of card redemption. This data may help spot patterns of fraud.
- Making it a practice to provide refunds to victims who realize they are dealing with a scam after purchasing gifts cards and therefore don’t give scammers the numbers from the back of the card.
- The industry and enforcers in the U.S. and Canada should consider holding an in-person conference with relevant partners to examine common issues and understanding of the mechanics of card markets and ways to limit or prevent fraud.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a gift card scam:
- Victims should immediately notify the organization that issued the card as soon as they realize they have bought gift cards and provided the numbers to scammers, or have purchased gift cards with no balance on them. There is typically a customer service number on the back of the card.
- Better Business Bureau – file a complaint with your local BBB if you lost money or report a scam online at BBB.org/scamtracker.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – file a complaint online at FTC.gov or call 877-FTC-Help.
- Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) – file a complaint online at IC3.gov/complaint.
- Consumer Financial Protection Agency – file a complaint online at ConsumerFinance.gov/complaint or call (855) 411-2372.
- Canadian Anti Fraud Centre – file a report online at Antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca or call 1-888-495-8501.
- Canadian Financial Consumer Agency to file a report online about prepaid or reloadable cards in Canada.