Avoid Gift Card Scams
Paying with gift cards is like paying with cash.
Gift cards are easy to find and buy—which is why they are a popular tool for scammers to use.
Gift cards are typically used for gifts, not for payments. As soon as someone tells you to pay them with a gift card, that’s a scam. Paying with gift cards is like paying with cash. Once it's gone, it's gone for good.
The most common types of gift cards involved in scams are those issued by big companies with physical goods — such as Amazon, Target, eBay, or Walmart. But digital markets such as the Google Play Store are also vulnerable.
Gift card scams can start with a phone call, text, email, social media message, or even a fake antivirus pop-up.
They can also happen physically, inside brick-and-mortar stores. Many types of scams, such as tech support scams and romance scams, end up as gift card scams.
How to Spot a Scammer
What scammers will do or say:
- The caller says it’s urgent. They say you must pay right away or something terrible will happen. They want to scare or pressure you into acting quickly, so you don’t have time to think or talk to someone you trust. Don’t pay. It’s a scam.
- The caller usually tells you which gift card to buy. They might say to put money on an eBay, Google Play, Target, or iTunes gift card. They might send you to a specific store — often Walmart, Target, CVS, or Walgreens. Sometimes they tell you to buy cards at several stores, so cashiers won’t get suspicious. And the caller might stay on the phone with you while you go to the store and load money onto the card. If this happens to you, stop. It’s a scam.
- The caller asks you for the gift card number and PIN. The card number and PIN on the back of the card let the scammer get the money you loaded onto the card. Don’t give them those numbers. It’s a scam. You’ll lose your money, and you won’t be able to get it back.
Types of Gift Card Scams
Money collection scams - A fake employee from the IRS or a utility company calls, texts, or emails you and says you owe them money. If you don’t pay them, they’ll arrest you or shut off your service. And they ask you to pay them by buying gift cards and giving them the gift card numbers.
Online auction scams - On an auction site, scammers try to sell a fake gift card or a gift card with a low balance. You think you’re getting a good deal, but you’re really getting scammed.
Bot scams - Gift card scammers send malicious bots to scan a business’s gift card registry and drain active gift card balances. The scammers then buy products themselves or sell the balances off.
Cashier scams - Cashiers activate your gift card and then hand you back an un-activated gift card. They then use the activated gift card themselves or sell it for cash. Another version of this scam can happen when you pay for something with a partially redeemed gift card. After handing your card over, the cashier surreptitiously swaps it for a fully redeemed card and then claims that there’s no balance left on your card.
Damaged packaging scams - A scammer opens the gift card’s packaging to get the number, then repackages it, or scratches off the PIN code covering and replaces it with a sticker. When the card is activated, the scammer uses the number and PIN code.
Fake prizes - After winning a lottery or other giveaway contest, you’re asked to pay a processing or shipping fee with a gift card before the prize is released.
Magstripe reader scams - Scammers scan un-activated gift cards through a device called a magstripe reader, which stores the gift card numbers inside. The scammer then calls customer service with the numbers to learn the activation status and how much balance is left. If a gift card is still active, the scammer uses the card themselves or sells the number.
How to avoid Gift Card Scams
The first way to avoid gift card scams is to buy only from retailers you trust and avoid buying gift cards secondhand or from auction sites. When you do buy a gift card, read the terms and conditions, and keep track of your receipts.
- Buy for only trusted stores and websites
- Activate the new card immediately when you receive it and in person if you can
- Check the card's packaging for tampering
- Compare physical gift cards to ones you know are real.
- Keep your gift card receipts.
- Trade gift cards for good or services from strangers or accept gift cards as payment from someone you don't know.
- Pay extra fees with gift cards for something you won or were given.
- Pay bills in gift cards, even if they seem legitimate
- Reply to strange texts, emails, or calls regarding gift cards