More than a third of U.S. adults have been contacted by a gift card scammer. In a 2023 survey, the AARP reported a quarter of those targeted fell prey to the scam, losing $200 on average.
In 2022, people lost a reported total of $228.3 million to gift card scams. But the real figure is likely much higher, as just 5% of these scams get reported, notes Forbes. Gift card scams are growing more prominent because they’re harder to trace than other types of fraud. After all, the scammer doesn’t have to actually access your accounts; the gift card funds function just like cash.
Gift card scammers will try to rush you into making an immediate gift card purchase, saying that something bad will happen if you don’t comply, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Then they’ll want you to send them the numbers on the back of the card or text them a photo of it. Don’t fall for this! They’re simply trying to prevent you from talking to a loved one or thinking further about their request while they steal your money.
These scammers contact their prospective victims via phone, email, social media, or even traditional mail. Here are some common types of gift card scams they use.
Saying you must pay a fee to collect sweepstakes winnings.
According to the AARP, this is currently the most common tactic used by scammers, reported by 15% of respondents. Con artists will say you need to send a small sum via a gift card to get a large prize like a vacation or car. No legitimate prize giveaway would require such a purchase.
Saying they’re a government or company representative.
Scammers will often tell you they’re from a government agency like the Social Security Administration or IRS. They may claim that a serious issue with your Social Security number or tax payments can be resolved by purchasing a gift card. They’ll typically say you’ll face dire consequences, like jail time or fines, if you don’t.
Saying they’re a company representative.
Scammers may say they’re from your utility company and ask you to buy a gift card to pay your utility bill (or someone else’s). They may say that service will be cut off immediately if you don’t.
Or, they may claim to be from a company’s tech support department, saying your account has a security issue that you can only fix by buying a gift card—and sending them the info. They may also say you need to pay for a service or resolve a debt, claiming that buying a gift card is a quick way to do this, notes AARP.
Impersonating a loved one.
Fraudsters often say they’re a loved one who’s going through a crisis. With today’s sophisticated voice cloning techniques, they may convincingly impersonate someone you know. Commonly, scammers will impersonate a grandchild, claiming to be in trouble and asking for help in the form of gift cards. Hang up and contact your loved one directly if you’re concerned.
Scammers may also find their victims through a dating website and ask them for money. Don’t trust anyone whom you’ve never met in person or have known for only a short while.
Saying they’re your boss or coworker.
A scammer might impersonate your boss or coworker, saying they need you to quickly buy gift cards for a client or for another work-related purpose. In this common phishing scheme, they’ll use a phone number or email that seems to belong to your boss or colleague.
Saying you’ve been offered a job.
Some gift card scams involve telling you that you need to buy gift cards to cover a start-up fee or necessities like office equipment for a phony job offer. They’ll likely say you’ll be reimbursed—but of course, that won’t happen. Such scammers may also seek to gain personal information from you.
Saying they’re sending you a check.
Fraudsters may send you a check, claiming to be a legitimate entity or person. They’ll send more than you expected to receive, then ask you to make up the difference by sending them a gift card, says the FTC. They aim to get the gift card info from you immediately—before you try to cash the check.
Stealing info from cards on store racks.
Other scammers simply steal the info from the back of gift cards on store racks. When you purchase a gift card, loading it with funds, they’ll make purchases with it. To avoid this issue, only buy gift cards kept behind the counter or sold directly by the company online.
Requiring gift card payment for a purchase or donation.
Some gift card scammers ask you to pay for an online purchase by buying a gift card and sending them the info for it. Of course, they’ll disappear without sending the product purchased.
Still others pose as clergy members or nonprofits asking you to purchase a card and send them the info as a donation. If in doubt, contact the organization directly! Collecting funds via unwanted gift cards can be a legitimate way for a church or organization to raise funds, but they won’t ask you to purchase a new card.
In short, if anyone contacts you saying that you urgently need to buy a gift card for any reason, don’t believe them!
If you’ve been contacted by a gift card scammer, take action:
- Contact the company that issued the gift card. The FTC lists phone numbers to call for companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google Play. If you bought a gift card for the scammer, ask if you can get your money back—and tell them exactly what happened.
- Report the fraud to the FTC and your state attorney general. This data helps them track trends and investigate the broader issue.
- File a police report. The FTC can’t resolve your individual case, but local police departments can investigate it.
Even if you didn’t fall for the scam, report it. This will help the government track common scams. By taking this action and steering clear of gift card scammers, you’ll help keep everyone safe—including yourself!