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Gifts Cards Are for Gifts — Not Criminals

AARP survey finds some deceived into buying cards for strangers

Apple Inc. iTunes gift cards are displayed for sale in a Best Buy Co. store in Chesapeake, Virginia, U.S.

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En español | Gift cards are a popular, one-size-fits-all present — but nobody hankers after them more than criminals. Using a variety of ruses, criminals persuade people to buy the cards and turn over their redemption codes, giving the crooks instant access to the cards’ value.

Still, nearly 1 in 4 people in an AARP-sponsored survey answered this true-or-false question incorrectly: “It is always a scam when someone directs you to pay a debt or other obligation with a gift card such as an eBay, Google Play or retail store gift card."


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The correct answer is true, though 24 percent of the respondents in the national survey either gave the wrong answer or weren't sure. A strong majority, 76 percent, got it right.

More than $300 million lost in three years

Gift cards and reload cards are among the top methods used by victims to send funds to fraudsters, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer protection agency, reports. Crooks got their greedy hands on about $305 million in gift and reload cards during the three years ending in 2020, the FTC says.

Other key findings from the AARP survey:

  • Nearly 1 in 3 adults (31 percent) said they or someone they know had been asked at some point to purchase a gift card to pay a bill, fee or some other debt or obligation or to claim a prize. None is a valid reason. Gift cards are for gifts for people you know and trust — not for any other purpose.

  • Of those who were asked to buy a card for one of the above reasons, more than 1 in 10 (11 percent) complied. Often they picked up the cards at stores such as Walmart, Target, CVS or Walgreens. Notably, some respondents said a store clerk or sales associate warned them that buying gift cards for a purported financial obligation is a scam.

  • People who were asked by outsiders for gift cards most often said they were told the cards were needed to pay a fee to collect a larger prize, sweepstakes or lottery. The other ruses victims were given, in descending order: the need to deal with a supposed Social Security problem; to pay an upfront fee for a product or service; to pay for something else; to pay to fix a computer or other electronic device; to pay a utility bill for water, heat or electricity; to pay back taxes or overdue taxes; to help someone take care of a utility bill or buy them necessities; or to pay a fine to avoid arrest.

  • Adults in the survey ages 18 to 49 were more likely to know someone who had been asked for a gift card (63 percent) to pay for a financial obligation or to claim a prize than people age 50 and older (38 percent).

  • Among those who know someone who was asked for a gift card for the wrong reasons, nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) said the acquaintance either lives in their household or is a relative residing elsewhere.

A reminder that bears repeating

Remember that gift cards are for trusted friends, relatives and associates — not for the faraway strangers who call, email, text or reach out on social media with a bogus story.

The survey of 1,000 adults was conducted Feb. 12 and 13 by AmeriSpeak Omnibus, which is operated by NORC at the University of Chicago. Ninety-three percent of the surveys were completed online and 7 percent by phone. The overall survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago TribuneU.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

What You Need to Know About Gift Card Payment Scams

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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