Kendra Clark: Beware of the gift card scam
On a recent afternoon, I made a grocery run to the Raley’s in Grass Valley. I scored a decent parking spot, then navigated my way through the tangle of shoppers and carts and cars.
Once inside, there was a noticeable energy shift in the air around me as my attention fell on a frantic, albeit well-put together, woman. She was probably my mother’s age, nervously talking on the phone while fumbling through a stack of still-hanging gift cards.
“Sephora. They only come in increments of $500,” I heard her say in a shaky voice, as she grabbed a large stack of $500 gift cards. “You want me to get all of them?”
For a split second, I thought I was witnessing the purchase of a lifetime supply of skincare and beauty products from the cosmetics company (I mean, how does one become so lucky?). But then I realized — this poor woman was being scammed.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, gift card fraud is unfortunately on the rise, as nearly a quarter of people who report being victims of fraud, paid with gift cards. The scammers are increasingly creative in their ploys to get their target’s money, and nearly always appeal to their victim’s sense of urgency with threats of imminent doom.
Here’s how the scam typically works: Someone calls you up saying they are from XYZ Bank/Power Company/Government Agency, and unless you give them an immediate digital payment or “electronic voucher,” you’ll lose all your money / they’re turning off your power / you or your loved one will face arrest (they really go for the jugular to get their desired response).
Electronic voucher, you ask? Oh, they’ll make it simple and accept gift cards, easily purchased at any store near you. As with the lady I came across locally, the scammer will bombard their targets with calls and texts, or even stay on the phone until the purchase is made.
I stopped my cart and looked hard at the lady, still on the phone with her scammer, trying to make eye contact. I stepped a little closer and we caught eyes over our masks.
I tried to speak so she could hear me, “Excuse me, ma’am,” I muffled through my mask. “I think you are being scammed. I urge you not to buy the gift cards.”
I motioned to her phone call with a shaka to my ear, “Is that them?” I whisper-yelled, awkwardly. “Hang up.”
As I said this, it occurred to me that I might look like I was someone in on the scam, and I didn’t want to cause this lady any more of a fright. After all, I had no make-up on and looked particularly disheveled. It should have been me buying up the Sephora gift cards.
With palpable tension, she brought the phone against her shoulder to muffle our conversation: “They told me they’re from my bank and I have to make this gift card payment to them or the money will disappear from my account.” Her eyes were wide, “They said my phone and computer had been compromised!”
“Hang up. It’s a scam.” I was absolutely sure now. No one was getting a Sephora makeover. “I urge you. Take a step back from all this. Your bank would never ask you to buy gift cards. Hang up. Call your bank directly to confirm. Use the number from the back of your ATM card, so you know you’re calling the right people.”
She looked at me, and it was as if her eyes cleared and a spell had been lifted. She ended the call on her phone. This lady was no fool. She had just gotten caught up in the sense of urgency created by these scammers. That’s how they get you.
No legitimate government agency or financial institution will ever ask for gift cards. The mention of gift cards by any unsolicited source is a definite red flag. Be wary of phone calls, text messages or emails that claim dire, immediate consequences if you don’t run right out and buy up thousands in gift cards. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the madness these scammers bank on.
AARP also describes situations during the holidays in which scammers looking for gift cards pose as charitable organizations that ask for the numbers off the cards, then disappear with the money. There have been additional reports of online sellers doing the same thing: taking the number and funds from the gift cards and disappearing: these bad actors are creative.
Bottom line: steer clear of ever buying gift cards at the request of a stranger. Gift cards are only gifts, never forms of payment.
As I walked away from the lady in Raley’s, she was visibly shaken. This had been an intense experience. I was relieved that I had stepped in and prevented her from being swindled, but I wish there was more I could do or more support I could have offered her.
These and similar types of crimes are on the rise, and all too often they prey on our seniors, especially during the holidays.
According to the FBI, there are some steps we can all take to prevent criminals from swindling the well-meaning among us:
Beware of purchases, services, or “emergency” situations requiring a gift card. Verify requests for personal information from any business or financial institution by contacting them using the main contact information on their official website.
Secure credit card accounts, even rewards accounts, with strong passwords. Change passwords and check accounts routinely. Make charitable contributions directly rather than through an intermediary, and pay via credit card or check. Avoid cash donations if possible.
Beware of organizations with copycat names similar to reputable charities. Most legitimate charity websites use “.org,” not “.com.”
If you or someone you know have fallen victim to one of these scams, report your experience to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov and to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.IC3.gov, regardless of dollar loss. To learn more about spotting and avoiding gift card scams, visit ftc.gov/giftcards.
Kendra Clark lives in Smartsville.
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