You might get a phone call or email alerting you that you've won a gift card. All you need to do, you may be told, is provide your credit card number to pay a small delivery fee. The scammers get that money and can also make fraudulent charges of their own on your credit card account.
Or the gotcha may be a link that unleashes malware onto your computer or leads you to a survey asking for personal information that scammers can use for identity theft. Although some legitimate retailers do provide gift cards for completing surveys, they will never ask for information such as your Social Security or credit card numbers — and they don't charge fees for delivery or anything else.
In still another version, you're instructed to call a certain phone number to claim your card, only to be tricked into outrageous charges because you're dialing a foreign country with faux-American area code or to be hassled into buying unwanted goods or services. Of course, no gift card ever arrives.
Gift card security tips
So if gift cards are on your holiday shopping list, how can you ensure your giftee doesn't get the plastic equivalent of coal? Follow these steps.
- At stores, try to buy from a rack that's behind a counter staffed by a store employee — there's less chance a thief can tamper with these cards. If you're buying from an out-in-the-open display rack, make sure the card's packaging hasn't been tampered with. Make sure that any peel-off sticker over a code is firmly in place.
- When paying for a card, make sure the cashier scans the card in your presence and contains the value you paid for. This can help you avoid yet another variation of gift card scam in which the clerk only pretends to activate the card, hands it to you and pockets the money you provide.
- Always get a receipt for yourself as well as for the card recipient. Most retailers can track where their gift cards were purchased, activated and used, so if yours has been hijacked, having a receipt will usually qualify you or the recipient for a refund or replacement.
- Online, buy directly from websites of the issuing retailer. If possible, register the purchase at that website. Not all retailers offer this option, but it will help bring to light any misuse of purchased cards more quickly (and means fewer hassles in resolving it).
- Delete emails and hang up on phone calls claiming you've won a free gift card.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.