Cybercriminals are always looking for ways to make quick, easy money, and gift card scams offer them a golden opportunity to use social engineering and sophisticated phishing techniques to score a payday. Many people fall for gift card scams every year. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that about one in four people who report losing money to fraud says it happened through a gift card scam. In the first nine months of 2021, nearly 40,000 people reported $148 million stolen using gift cards.
What is a Gift Card Scam?
Gift cards are for gifts, not for payments. As soon as someone tells you to pay them with a gift card, that’s a scam. Gift cards are popular with scammers because they’re easy for people to find and buy. They also have fewer protections for buyers compared to some other payment options. They’re more like cash: once you use a gift card, the money on it is gone.
If someone calls and asks that you pay them with gift cards, that’s a scammer calling. And once they have the gift card number and the PIN, they have your money.
Scammers may tell you different stories to get you to pay them with gift cards, but this is what usually happens:
- The caller says it’s urgent. They say you must pay right away or something terrible will happen. They want to scare or pressure you into acting quickly, so you don’t have time to think or talk to someone you trust. Don’t pay. It’s a scam.
- The caller usually tells you which gift card to buy. They might say to put money on an eBay, Google Play, Target, or iTunes gift card. They might send you to a specific store — often Walmart, Target, CVS, or Walgreens. Sometimes they tell you to buy cards at several stores, so cashiers won’t get suspicious. And the caller might stay on the phone with you while you go to the store and load money onto the card. If this happens to you, stop. It’s a scam.
- The caller asks you for the gift card number and PIN. The card number and PIN on the back of the card let the scammer get the money you loaded onto the card. Don’t give them those numbers. It’s a scam. You’ll lose your money, and you won’t be able to get it back.
How do Gift Card Scams Work?
Gift card scams generally start with the scammer contacting their victim through an email, telephone call, or text/SMS/app message. In this scam, crooks contact potential victims and instruct them to purchase or use a gift card to pay a bill or transfer funds. The scammers often try to create a sense of urgency that compels the victim, saying things like their electricity will be cut off for non-payment unless they pay their bill by gift card immediately. Sometimes scammers prey on people’s fears of getting in trouble at work by pretending to be an executive at the victim’s company who needs money immediately.
Why do Scams Favor Gift Cards?
Scammers choose to use gift cards because they can get quick cash in a way that’s largely irreversible while remaining anonymous to easily cover their tracks. Gift cards are easy for people to find and buy, with fewer legal protections for buyers who are scammed than other payment options.
How do You Avoid Gift Card Scams?
Avoiding gift card scams requires awareness and caution, but it is generally safe to assume that if anyone calls, emails, or messages a potential target asking for gift cards, they’re a scammer. No US local, state or federal government agency will ever ask for payment via gift card, nor will most legitimate businesses include service providers and utilities. If someone receives an unexpected message from a person claiming to be their boss or a colleague requesting a gift card, contact that person directly via telephone or video chat to ensure that they’re really who they say they are. When in doubt, trust your gut and don’t pay with a gift card.
What To Do If You Paid a Scammer with Gift Cards
If you paid a scammer with a gift card, tell the company that issued the card right away. Keep the card and any receipts you have. You can contact information for some gift card companies:
- Call 1 (888) 280-4331 and follow the instructions provided.
- Keep the Amazon card itself and your receipt for the Amazon card.
- Chat with eBay customer support, or have a representative call you back
- Keep the eBay gift card itself and your receipt for the eBay gift card.
- Report the gift card scam to Google. If you don’t have a Google account, fill out this form.
- Keep the Google Play card itself and your receipt for the Google Play card.
- Call Apple Support right away at 1 (800) 275-2273. Say “gift card” to connect with a live representative.
- Ask if the money is still on the iTunes card. If so, Apple can put a freeze on it. You might be able to get your money back from them.
- Keep the iTunes card itself and your receipt for the iTunes card.
- Report the gift card scam to Steam through Steam Support.
- Keep the Steam card itself and your receipt for the Steam card.
- Call Target GiftCard Services at 1 (800) 544-2943 and follow the instructions provided.
- Submit a fraud claim to MoneyPak.
- Keep the MoneyPak card itself and your receipt for the MoneyPak card.
Don’t see your card on this list? Look for the company’s contact information on the card itself or do some research online to find out how to reach the card issuer. If you can’t find the contact information or the card issuer doesn’t want to talk to you, report it to the FTC.
If someone asks you to pay them with gift cards: