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Vanessa Garcia for Money

When you hear "gift card scam," you might have an image of a victim in mind — and it's probably not a tech-savvy young person. But with millions of Americans out of work, and desperate to make ends meet, more and more people are getting swindled by even the most rudimentary scams.

Scammers are most effective when people are scared and emotionally vulnerable, says Emma Fletcher, a program analyst at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Enter COVID-19. From fake virus treatments to phony government texts, fraudsters have learned to tap our heightened fears.

Gift card scammers are particularly active these days. In 2020 alone, there have been nearly 28,000 reports of "gift and reload card frauds" — like when a scammer asks someone to buy a gift card from CVS, Target, or other major retailer and share the code on the back — resulting in a loss of almost $80 million, according to the FTC. That's 60% more than were reported in 2016.

And they're fooling people of all ages.

Tamara Abrosimova, 27, thought she'd hit pay dirt when someone who called himself "David Thomas" reached out to her on Instagram in November. He said he was 57, lived in Massachusetts, and was looking for some "company." (AKA, a Sugar Baby).

Abrosimova, an actress and photographer in Ladson, South Carolina, hasn't found stable work since the beginning of the pandemic, so when “Thomas" offered to give her $5,000 worth of Amazon and Apple gift cards, she took the bait. She ran out and bought two gift cards for $100 each — splitting the cost between cash and credit — and sent him the codes on the back of the cards, just like he'd asked.

The plan, he said, was to reload the cards with the $5,000 he'd promised her. But when he kept asking for $200 more to “activate the account,” she realized she was being scammed and contacted the police. Today, “Thomas” continues to message her (she ignores him).

“My intuition was telling me, ‘Don’t do this,’” Abrosimova says. “But I need money.”

Scams in the time of COVID-19

Gift cards are popular among scammers because it’s easy to cash them in or sell them on websites like eBay or Craigslist. They’re also virtually untraceable.

These scams often target the elderly — an FTC report found that gift card fraudsters swindled more people over the age of 60 in 2019 than scammers using any other payment method — but older Americans aren't the only victims.

“Scammers target people of all ages," says Sheryl Harris, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs in Ohio.

Older adults, she says, tend to get calls claiming a grandchild is in jail and needs their bail paid via a gift card. Younger consumers are told they need to pay a fine — again, conveniently, with a gift card — because they didn’t show up for jury duty, or didn't pay their taxes.

The coronavirus pandemic has given scammers even more ammunition. They're taking advantage of our kindness: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has received reports of scammers soliciting donations for people supposedly impacted by the virus. And they're playing to our vulnerabilities, with fake government checks and pandemic-specific "romance scams."

COVID-19 also provides scammers with a convenient excuse as to why you can't actually meet the person asking for your money.

“The pandemic has given scammers opportunities to weave little COVID mentions into the stories they use to trick people,” the FTC's Fletcher says.

Stores are (finally) adapting

Retailers can help. In a 2018 survey of 1,408 Americans and Canadians who reported a scam, surveyors found that 51% of people who reported a third-party intervention — like store employees or bank tellers — were able to avoid losing money.

“When people have no one to talk to, they’re much more likely to be scammed,” says Fletcher, who co-wrote the survey report. And often, a cashier is the only person they'll interact with before making a gift card purchase.

Some retail stores have started to train cashiers to spot behaviors that indicate a scam is happening — like a customer who's talking on the phone throughout their entire purchase, seems nervous or upset, and is buying several gift cards from the same brand.

Target, for one, encourages employees to keep an eye out for these behaviors and to ask potential victims if they need help, according to Jenna Reck, Senior Communications Director at Target.

Target, and other retailers like Walmart and Best Buy, have also added in-store signage this year warning shoppers of common gift card scams. These tactics seem to be helping: last year, Target employees saved an elderly couple from getting scammed out of thousands of dollars in Ohio, and CVS employees stopped a woman from doing the same in New York.

But even when a retailer does get involved, they’re sometimes up against seasoned scammers who coach victims on what to say to inquiring employees. Or those scammers who stay on the phone while the victim makes the purchase so they can’t stop to think about what they're doing.

When people report scams to the Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs, Harris says, they can usually identify tons of red flags they failed to see during the call.

To combat this, some stores are partnering with law enforcement. Harris’ team has a task force called “Scam Squad,” which taps local nonprofit, social service, and law enforcement agencies to warn residents about common frauds. In Green Valley, Ariz., another local "Scam Squad," runs a regular column in the Green Valley News to educate and counsel readers.

"We wanted to pool information so we could get the most accurate information out to the public," Harris says. “You don’t think straight when you’re panicking."

How to protect yourself and your loved ones

Here's the bottom line: If someone is asking you to pay for something with a gift card, even if they have all sorts of excuses as to why it's legitimate, you're almost certainly getting scammed.

That can be hard to remember when a scammer lies to you and says that someone you love is in trouble, or you owe money to the government. If, despite your best judgment, you do fall victim to one of these scams, contact the store where you purchased the card, or the card issuer, immediately. (The FTC has a list of gift cards most commonly used by scammers, like Amazon, eBay, and Google Play, as well as contact information for each brand.)

“The faster you report, the better chance you have of saving at least part of your money,” Harris says.

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