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Gift Card Scams

En español | Gift cards have become one of Americans’ favorite ways to mark birthdays and holidays. A 2018 Deloitte survey found that gift cards and gift certificates are on 54 percent of U.S. consumers’ holiday shopping lists, making them the most popular type of present. But scammers also love gift cards, which provide them with numerous, virtually untraceable ways to steal.

According to the FBI, one common trick is for thieves to go to stores and surreptitiously scratch off the film strip on the backs of gift cards to get the personal identification numbers (PINs), which they cover back up with easy-to-obtain replacement stickers. The card numbers and PINs are entered into a computer program that repeatedly checks the retailer’s website.

When someone buys and loads a compromised card, the scammer is notified and can spend or transfer the money on the card, or cash it in, before the buyer or gift recipient has a chance to use it. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults polled by AARP Research in November 2019 said they had given or received a gift card that turned out to have no value on it. 

Have you seen this scam? Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline877-908-3360

Fraudsters also lurk on resale or auction websites, ostensibly offering goods at an attractive discount. Once they get you interested in buying, they’ll ask you to pay with a gift card. As soon as they get the card number and PIN, they vanish, and so does the money on the card. Requests for payment by gift card are also a regular feature of tech support and impostor scams.

Another ploy is the phony giveaway. You get an email or text message, supposedly from a familiar store or organization (including, on occasion, AARP), saying you’ve won a gift card. To claim it, you just need to provide contact information, click through to a website or answer a few survey questions, often about your finances or health. Crooks can then install malware on your computer, use your data for identity theft or sell it to marketers, resulting in a barrage of spam emails about loans or miracle cures.

Warning Signs

  • The packaging on a gift card in a store appears to have been tampered with, or the PIN is exposed.
  • A person selling an item online wants to be paid via gift cards from a different retailer.


  • Do delete any unsolicited email or text message offering you a gift card, without responding.
  • Do get gift cards at stores that keep them behind the counter or close to checkout aisles, where they’re harder to tamper with. If you buy a card stocked elsewhere in the store, make sure it’s securely sealed in packaging.
  • Do examine a card carefully for signs of tampering before you buy it.
  • Do register your card, if the retailer offers that option. That makes it easier to track and quickly report any misuse, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
  • Do buy cards directly from the businesses where they can be used. If you do go through the secondary market, check reviews and only buy from reputable resellers.


  • Don’t buy the top gift card right off the rack. That’s where impatient scammers usually put doctored cards, the BBB says.
  • Don’t give personal information to anyone in exchange for a gift card.
  • If you’re selling a gift card through an online resale market, don’t provide the buyer with the PIN until the transaction is complete.
  • Don’t give gift-card information to callers claiming to be from government agencies or tech companies. Only scammers ask you to pay fees, back taxes or bills for services with gift cards.

More Resources

  • If you encounter a gift-card scam, report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
  • You can also file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (online or at 877-382-4357) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (online or at 855-411-2372).

Updated December 11, 2019

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