Gift cards may be an especially popular gift this holiday season, thanks to a global supply chain disaster that's making it tough to get a hold of electronics and other items, but they're also a go-to vehicle for scammers.
There were about 35,000 fraud reports related to gift or reload cards in the first half of 2021, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (A reload card is like a prepaid debit card that you can add money to for purchases.) This year is on track to be the worst year yet for gift card scams, Scam Spotter, a cybersecurity platform launched by Google and the nonprofit Cybercrime Support Network, said in a recent press release. Last year, the FTC reported that gift cards have been a top fraud payment method every year since 2018, with nearly 44,000 reports of gift and reload card fraud in 2020.
What does a gift card scam look like? A popular method is for a scammer to contact you, urgently asking for money and telling you to pay with gift cards. Maybe they say your relative is in jail, that you've been pre-approved for a loan or that you owe the government money. Then, they'll direct you to which store you "need" to get the gift card from, like Best Buy or Target, and sometimes stay on the phone talking while you buy the card so there's no time to think twice.
Gift cards are a good method for scammers since the cards are untraceable, and once the scammer has the payment details, that money is gone for good.
These schemes are most effective when people are scared and emotionally vulnerable, Emma Fletcher, a program analyst at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), previously told Money. The pandemic was a big opportunity for criminals, what with promises of phony COVID-19 treatments and fake outreach from the government about stimulus checks and more.
How to protect yourself from a gift card scam
If someone is asking you to pay for something with a gift card, it's most likely a scam. Don't be fooled by a seemingly convincing excuse, like that you owe money or someone you love needs your help. And remember: government agencies like the IRS will never call you and demand immediate payment.
But if you do fall for a gift card scam, act as soon as you realize the problem. Contact the store where you bought the gift card or the card issuer ASAP. The FTC has a list of contact information for popular gift card companies like Amazon and iTunes.
The faster you report, the better chance of getting back at least some of your money.