The most prevalent scam targeting seniors involves gift cards. In 2019, more than $74 million was stolen using gift card fraud. Additionally, one-third of all fraud cases reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will involve gift cards.
Gift card fraud may seem odd, but they are virtually untraceable, and unlike credit cards, once used, it is impossible to get your money back. The reason this type of fraud has gained popularity is that gift cards can be used like cash. The most popular gift cards requested in scams are Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.
The gift card scams that involve seniors the most are ones using the IRS or Social Security departments as their front. But those aren’t the only ones you need to be aware of, unlike other scams, ones involving gift cards can come in a variety of forms.
In this article, we will discuss the various scams and how to identify them. Plus, we have included tips on how to avoid being a victim of a scam and what to do if you have been trapped in a gift card fraud situation.
Types of Gift Card Scams
- Tampered Gift Cards
- Online Bots
- Auction or Resale Websites
- False Identity
- You’re a Winner Pop-Up
Tampered Gift Cards
Though this is not a senior-specific crime, it does impact anyone who is looking to buy a gift card from the store.
Tampered gift cards is a crime that has been going on for a long time and is more prevalent during the holiday season, but does happen year-round. There are a few ways that criminals tamper with gift cards.
First, is scratching off the area to reveal the PIN. The PIN is covered and usually hidden behind the cardboard holder used to hang the gift card. However, if gently bent forward, someone could scratch off the covering, take a photo, and turn the flap back in place.
After the fraudster has taken a photo of the card number and PIN, they only have to wait until the gift card has been purchased and activated, then they will have access to the funds on the card.
The second way scammers tamper with gift cards is by replacing the bar code on the back.
How this scam works is that the criminal will purchase and pay for a legitimate gift card, then copy the bar code from that card onto a sticker. Next, they place the sticker over the existing bar code of a new gift card hanging up at the store. Every time someone purchases a tampered card, the criminal’s gift card is reloaded with more money.
So, the next time you plan on purchasing a gift card for a loved one, maybe even one of your grandchildren, follow the tips below to protect yourself.
- Always check to ensure the covering on the PIN is still in place
- Always check the bar code to see if it is textured – stickers do not have the same texture as the original bar code.
- Don’t purchase gift cards from stores if the PIN and card number are easily exposed.
- Purchase gift cards directly from the retailer through their online store
- If you receive a gift card, use the card right away. If you can, add the balance to your online account, like with Amazon and Zappos, do so that way the money stays put, and you can use the money at your leisure.
Another way criminals are hacking into gift card balances is by using technology. If a scammer takes a picture of the back of a gift card, they can utilize online bots to guess the PIN.
Online bots are software programs used for repetitive work. Online bots are not always used for nefarious purposes. However, criminals have found a way to use them to scan online searching for PINs or break into user’s accounts. These bots can be helpful to businesses and consumers, often acting as chatbots to aid people with common questions.
Gift cards with PINs that only have four characters are easy for tech-savvy criminals to steal gift card balances. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell in advance if a scammer has taken a photo of the card number and is just waiting for it to be activated.
Purchase gift cards online, directly from the retailer, and have them sent to your home or the intended recipient. This way, the card is never displayed in a store, making stealing the card number more difficult.
Auction or Resale Websites
Fraudsters are now using online shopping through auction or resale sites to get you to purchase their items with gift cards. Many seniors feel safe buying online from auction sites since they have been around for years, and have historically been a reliable shopping method.
Because gift cards are virtually untraceable, they can take the money and disappear, leaving you without the item you thought you were purchasing as well as the money that was one the gift card.
An example of this would be, you are on Craiglist, and you see the missing figurine from your collection. You contact the seller, and they tell you they will sell you the item if you pay them via gift card. Once you provide the gift card number and PIN, they pull their ad off the website and vanish.
Unfortunately, these situations make it almost impossible to get your money back. So, if you want to buy something online from one of these websites, use a reliable, protected payment service and never pay someone using a gift card.
The gift card scams that specifically target seniors are from people identifying themselves as representatives from organizations such as the IRS, Social Security, credit card companies, and banks.
These scams usually start as a phone call, and caller-id can not be relied upon to tell you the correct information. The caller will start off stating they are with XYZ organization, and they found a discrepancy in their records, and you owe this group a certain amount of money.
For example, they may say they are with the IRS and that you owe them $15,000, and to avoid going to jail, you need to pay down your debt starting immediately. They will then instruct you the fastest and most effective way to apply the credit to this outstanding debt is through gift cards.
This scenario may sound far fetched, but once an “IRS agent” is threatening and badgering you, it can seem very real and very scary.
Unfortunately, scammers have found that seniors are often the easiest to bully and threaten. Many seniors still believe and trust in government organizations, and also have a healthy respect for what they are capable of taking away from you if you owe them money.
Still, thinking it sounds unrealistic? In December 2019, a senior was swindled out of $35,000 in three days. The criminals used technology to make it appear they were with legitimate companies.
The victim received a popup on their computer that sounded an audible alarm telling them to call the number on their screen. When he did, they identified themselves as Microsft and said his credit card was hacked. The fraudsters were even able to make the credit card company’s phone number appear on this man’s caller id.
Ultimately, the criminals told the man that he had to buy gift cards to protect his credit card from being used for fraudulent charges. After realizing that he had been scammed, the victim called the police. Though law enforcement tried to get his money back, it was impossible, and the victim was unable to recover the $35,000.
- Never call a number on a pop-up message
- Never click on a link in a pop-up message or email
- Check sender’s email address; it is often a character or two off from what it should be
- Never believe anyone stating they will take payments in the form of a gift card
- If callers claiming to be with the IRS or credit card companies are very convincing and pushy, just hang up
- If you are concerned that the call was legitimate, call the organization directly
You’re a Winner Pop-Up
Many of us have received a pop-up claiming we are a winner of some sort of prize. Well, the latest pop-up claims you’ve won a gift card from Walmart. But if you click on the link to redeem the gift card, all you will win is some malware.
Malware is malicious software that criminals use. Malware comes in many forms and can do many harmful acts, such as steal your personal information, credit card information, disable your computer, delete data, or act as a spy inside your computer.
After clicking on a link for your prize gift card, you’re sent to a realistic-looking website asking for your information so they can send you the promised gift card, all while planting malware into your computer.
Don’t click on any links in an email or pop-up claiming you have won a gift card. If you think it could be legitimate, call the company directly and ask for more information.
Unfortunately, this is a scam often impacting seniors due to our tendency to be less tech-savvy and not knowing or realizing such scams exist.
What to do if You’ve Been Scammed
Although we all believe we won’t be that senior that gets scammed, it happens to quite a few of us, and it should not cause us embarrassment. Many seniors want to keep being scammed a secret, but that is the last thing you should do.
First, call the gift card company. Some of the retailers that issue gift cards use security defense computer programs that aid in identifying fraudulent gift card activity. If they have a cybersecurity system, they may be able to issue a refund.
Second, call your local law enforcement. Remember, gift card fraud is a common crime, so let the professionals help you out. Then log into the FTC website and report the incident.
Last, talk to friends and family, even if you can’t get your money back, maybe you can help save a loved one from a similar situation. Additionally, it may help you emotionally to find out you are not alone.
Seniors are the least likely to come forward after being scammed, and criminals know this, by keeping these incidents to ourselves, we are only protecting the criminals.