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Gift Card Scams

En español | Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers plan to buy gift cards for family and friends during the 2020 holiday season, according to an AARP survey on seasonal shopping. But take care when buying or using gift cards: Scammers love them, too, for gifting them with numerous, virtually untraceable ways to steal.

The money on gift cards is like cash: Once it's spent, you almost certainly can't get it back. That's why requests for payment by gift card are a regular feature of tech supportimpostor and grandparent scams. If anyone demands that you go get Walmart, iTunes or other gift cards to pay a debt, bill or fee for service, or to help a friend or relative in trouble, it's a sure sign of fraud.

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Fraudsters have also developed ways to drain the cash consumers put on gift cards they've legitimately purchased, for themselves or others. One 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 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 3 respondents to the AARP survey said they had given or received a gift card that turned out to have no value on it. 

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 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. 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

  • 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 buy gift cards online, directly from the issuing retailer, restaurant or other business. Cards on store racks can be tampered with. 
  • Do carefully examine any card you are considering buying at a physical store. It's safer to buy from places that keep gift cards behind the counter or, if sold on racks, in well-sealed packaging.
  • Do buy cards from the businesses where they can be used. If you do go through the secondary market, check reviews and only buy from reputable resellers.
  • 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).


  • 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, utilities 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 November 23, 2020

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.

More From the Fraud Resource Center

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