Gift cards are a popular and convenient way to give someone a gift. They’re also a popular way for scammers to steal money from you. That’s because gift cards are like cash: if you buy a gift card and someone uses it, you probably cannot get your money back. Gift cards are for gifts, not payments. Anyone who demands payment by gift card is always a scammer.
Many different kinds of imposters ask you to pay with gift cards. Someone might call you and claim to be from the IRS, collecting back taxes or fines. The caller might say he’s from tech support, asking for money to fix your computer. The caller might even say she’s a family member with an emergency and needs money right now.
But they all have in common an urgent need for you to send money right away. Imposters will sometimes ask you to wire money to them but, increasingly, they tell you to go put money on a gift card. Here’s what happens: the caller will often tell you to go buy a popular gift card, frequently, iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon. The caller will tell you to get the card at a particular store near you – often Walmart, Target, Walgreens, or CVS. They may even have you buy several cards at several stores. Sometimes, the caller will stay on the phone with you while you go to the store. Once you buy the card, the caller then will demand the gift card number and PIN on the back of the card. Those numbers let them immediately get the money you loaded onto the card. And once they’ve done that, the scammers and your money are gone, usually without a trace.
Other kinds of scammers, some of them also imposters, who might demand payment by gift card include:
- callers pretending to be from a utility company, telling you to pay your bill by gift card or they’ll cut off your power or water
- sellers on online auction sites who ask for gift cards to “buy” big items like cars, motorcycles, boats, RVs, tractors and electronics
- someone posing as a servicemember to get your sympathy, saying he has to sell something quickly before deployment and needs you to pay by gift card
- callers who say you’ve won a so-called prize, for a sweepstakes you probably never entered – but first, you have to use a gift card to pay fees or other charges
- someone buying something from you, probably online, who sends a check for more than the purchase price – and asks you to give them the difference on a gift card. (That check, by the way, will turn out to be fake.)
These are all scams. In fact, if anyone tells you to pay by gift card, or by wiring money – for any reason – that’s a sure sign of a scam. Every time.
What if you paid a scammer with a gift card?
If you paid a scammer with a gift card, tell the company that issued the card right away. When you contact the company, tell them the gift card was used in a scam. Ask them if they can refund your money. If you act quickly enough, the company might be able to get your money back. Also, tell the store where you bought the gift card as soon as possible.
Here is a list of cards that scammers often use – with information to help report a scam. If the card you used is not on this list, you might find the gift card company’s contact information on the card itself, or you might need to do some research online. The FTC will update this list as new information becomes available.
Search online for how to reach that card issuer. Is there no contact information available? Is the card issuer reluctant to help? And did you lose money to a scammer? Tell your fraud story to the FTC.
Giving and receiving gift cards as gifts
If you get or give a gift card, here are some steps to follow:
- Buy gift cards from sources you know and trust. Avoid buying gift cards from online auction sites, because the cards may be counterfeit or stolen.
- Inspect a gift card before you buy it. Check that none of the protective stickers have been removed. Make sure that the codes on the back of the card haven’t been scratched off to show the PIN number. Report any damaged cards to the store selling the cards.
- Keep the receipt with the gift card. Whether you’re giving or getting, try to keep the original purchase receipt, or the card’s ID number, with the gift card.
- Read the terms and conditions of the gift card. Is there an expiration date? Are there fees to use the card, or for shipping and handling? Will fees be taken out every time you use the card, or after it sits unused for some period of time?
- Use the card as soon as you can. It’s not unusual to misplace gift cards or forget you have them. Using them early will help you get the full value.
- Treat gift cards like cash. If your card is lost or stolen, report it to the card’s issuer immediately. You might not get back the money left on the card – or you might get some, perhaps for a fee. You might need to show the receipt and the ID number on the card. Most issuers have toll-free telephone numbers you can call to report a lost or stolen card – find it on the card or online.