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Scam Alert

Give a Gift — not a Grift — Card

Gift cards remain the most requested present, and thieves know several ways to siphon off the value

No need to send a letter to the North Pole — Santa already knows what you want. For the fifth consecutive year, gift cards remain the most requested present, requested by a record-breaking 58 percent of holiday hopefuls, says the National Retail Federation.

gift cards

Display racks of gift cards offer thieves the chance to tamper with them and steal their value. — Photo by Tony Avelar/AP Photo

On average, gift card givers buy four cards, with an average value of $35. But because of some clever scams, recipients may end up with nothing but a useless "grift" card.

In the best-known ruse, thieves visit display racks to collect identifying information on gift cards that haven't yet been sold and activated by a cashier. When no one's looking, they copy the card numbers and scratch or peel to find hidden code numbers. The cards are then placed back on the rack for purchase by unsuspecting customers.

The scammers then periodically check the issuer's toll-free number to determine when a particular card is activated and for what amount. With that final information in hand, the thief can make online purchases, and there's no need to have the actual card for that.

A less common variation focuses on cards whose activation codes are printed on the envelopes they're sold in. The crook carefully opens the envelope and swaps the blank card inside with a used one. When a customer picks up that envelope and takes it to the register to have the card activated, it's the stolen blank card that actually gets the value, not the one in the envelope.

And increasingly, thieves are going high-tech. They buy tiny card reader devices on the Intenet, then carry them right into stores. Taking a card from a rack, they surreptiously scan it to copy electronic information from its magnetic strip, then put it back on the rack. Once the card is bought and activated, the thief makes a duplicated cloned card for an in-store shopping spree.

Think you can avoid trouble, as well as crowds, by buying gift cards online? You can if you do it right.

Gift givers buy these "ecards" on the Internet and they show up in the recipients' email inboxes. The virtual cards can pay for online purchases or be printed out and taken to the store.

Buy the cards directly from the retailer's website and you're likely to be OK. But buying them at online auction sites can result in the delivery of ... nothing, or worthless counterfeits or cards with value a fraction of what was advertised.

Gift cards are also sometimes bait for identity theft.

Next: Phone call or email gotchas. >>

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