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Gift Card Scams

En español | Two-thirds of U.S. adults plan to buy gift cards this holiday season, according to a November 2021 AARP survey. But take care when buying or using gift cards: Scammers love them, too. It gives them numerous, virtually untraceable ways to steal.

The money you put on gift cards is like cash — once it’s spent, you almost certainly can’t get it back. Fraudsters have developed two distinct ways to exploit that fact: gift card payment scams and outright gift card theft.

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Gift card payment scams

Con artists commonly use Walmart, iTunes, eBay and other popular gift cards as cash conduits in impostor and phone scams. About 1 in 4 people who report to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that they lost money in a scam say they paid with a gift card. The median loss in such cases is $840.

Contacting you in the guise of someone else — a tech support expert, IRS agent or lottery official, to name a few common examples — scammers claim you owe a debt or need a service. They insist you buy gift cards and read them the serial and personal identification (PIN) numbers on the back to make quick payment.

Don’t believe it. Genuine businesses and government agencies never ask for payment via gift card. Any such request is a sure sign of fraud.

The same holds if you get an urgent call from a grandchild in distress, or if someone you’ve gotten close to online suddenly seeks a loan. An ask for money via gift card means you’re dealing with a crook, not a loved one. 

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.

Another variation recently garnering attention involves fraudsters posing as clergy members raising money for a worthy cause or a congregant in need. They reach out to worshipers by email, text or phone, asking them to buy gift cards and share the numbers.

Gift card theft

Fraudsters have also developed ways to directly drain the cash consumers put on gift cards they’ve legitimately purchased for themselves or others. Not surprisingly, these scams spike around the holidays. 

One trick is for thieves to go to stores and surreptitiously scratch off the film strip on the back to get the PIN, which they cover back up with easy-to-obtain replacement stickers.

The scammer enters the card numbers and PINs into a computer program that repeatedly checks the retailer’s website and notifies them when someone buys and loads a compromised card. The crook can then spend or transfer the money on the card, or cash it in, before the buyer or gift recipient has a chance to use it. More than 1 in 5 respondents to the AARP survey said they had given or received a gift card that turned out to have no value on it. 

Another ploy is the phony giveaway. You get an email or text, 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. 

The scammers 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 loan opportunities or miracle cures.

Warning Signs

  • Someone claiming to be a government official, a representative of a company you do business with or a loved one in trouble tells you to buy gift cards to cover a debt, bill or emergency expense.
  • A person selling an item online wants to be paid via gift cards from a different retailer.
  • The packaging on a gift card in a store appears to have been tampered with, or the PIN is exposed.


  • Do purchase cards you plan to use yourself or give as presents directly from the business that issued them, preferably by ordering them online. Cards on store racks can be tampered with.
  • Do carefully examine any card you are considering buying at a physical store for signs of tampering. It’s safer to buy from places that keep gift cards behind the counter or, if they’re sold on racks, in well-sealed packaging.
  • Do immediately contact the retailer that issued a gift card you used to pay a suspected scammer. If money remains on the card, you might be able to get it back. You often will find contact information on the card.
  • Do register your card with the retailer if that option is offered. This makes it easier to track and quickly report any issues.


  • Don’t give gift-card information to callers claiming to be from government agencies, tech companies, utilities or other businesses. Only scammers ask you to pay fees, back taxes or bills for services with gift cards.
  • Don't respond to an unsolicited email or text message offering you a gift card. Delete it.
  • Don’t give personal information to anyone in exchange for a gift card.
  • Don’t buy the top gift card right off a store rack. That’s where impatient scammers usually put doctored cards, according to the Better Business Bureau.
  • Don’t buy gift cards from online auction sites. They could be counterfeit or stolen, according to the FTC.

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 November 19, 2021

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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