The Grinch Has Gone High-Tech!

Beware of gift card scams during the holidays...

The Grinch has gone high-tech! Everyone from the FBI to Cape Cod Today is warning of gift card scams.

A couple of weeks ago CCT published a warning from the Harwich police that residents were receiving emails from supposed friends asking for iTunes gift cards to use as gifts because they are in the hospital. The police speculate that scammers are using social media pages to locate friends of the person shown as sending the message. It probably looks ok because the senders are likely smart enough to set up fake email addresses for the scam. There are two things to do immediately if you receive such an email. First, contact the friend directly—calling or creating a fresh email with the address from your contacts list. I hope you find the friend well and enjoying the holidays at home. Second is to report it to the police. Reporting scams helps the police to know what they are dealing with and they are very appreciative.

Just this morning I received an email that scammers who purport to be volunteers at the Family Pantry in Harwich are emailing other volunteers with hard luck stories and requests for gift cards. No reputable organization would sanction this on the part of any of their volunteers and any such solicitation should be reported to the local police immediately.

Many of the scams are high-volume professionally-run operations. Gift card scams are so prevalent this year that they made the FBI list of top holiday scams. In addition to email gift card requests of many kinds, the cards themselves can be compromised. There are at least two ways the cards you see hanging on a rack in a retail store can be compromised. One is for criminals to peel back the sticker covering the PIN and write it down. They watch for the number online and try to make a purchase with the remaining balance. The second one sounds like it takes a little more skill. Thieves steal gift cards from stores and remove the bar code on the back. Then they place that bar code on another card and replace it on the shelf. When the purchaser activates the card, he is actually activating the thieves’ gift card. Tampering with cards suggests the first way to avoid gift card scams:

  • Inspect the card carefully before purchasing. If it shows any evidence that the sticker covering the PIN has been disturbed, do not purchase it. Feel the card for any variations in thickness. If the bar code has been removed and replaced, you should feel a slight difference in thickness. Cards on racks that are in full view are safer than cards on a rack tucked in a dark corner. Cards that are kept behind the counter are safer than ones displayed openly. Cards that are purchased on the web are safer still. Even when purchasing in a trusted retail store, carefully watch the employee activating the card, primarily to ensure that you receive back the same card you brought to the counter.
  • When buying online, buy only from known, trusted sites. There are legitimate sites that purchase cards consumers don’t want and resell them at a discount. Problem is, it’s hard to tell whether the card has actually been stolen and perhaps drained of its value before being offered for purchase. A purchase from these resale sites is inherently dangerous and it’s better to stick with sites you know. If you must resell, only deal with a site that offers a guarantee. The Commonwealth has special laws that mostly apply to the expiration of cards (the law calls them gift certificates). There is one important piece of general advice:
  • Never provide personal information like SSN when purchasing a gift card. There is no reason for this type of information and a legitimate retailer will not ask for it.

Keep the receipts for the gift cards you purchased at least until you know they have been activated. If you receive a card as a gift and it has a zero balance, report it to the retailer right away. Use gift cards as quickly as possible, and you should actually check balances from time to time just like you do credit cards.

And remember the year-round, extremely important warning:

  • No legitimate government agency or business ever asks for payment in gift cards. Never. Ever.

Please protect yourself by following these warning recommendations. Then if you come across something that’s not right report it. The clearly local ones should be reported to your local police. They appreciate the information and will follow it up. Report any scam to the Mass Attorney General’s Office or to the FTC, which has an informative page on the subject.

Keep your holidays merry and bright by protecting yourself and doing anything you can to help law enforcement track down the perpetrators of scams that dim this wonderful season!


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