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Feds: Gift Card Fraud Losses Soar to $148 Million

Scammers favor using Target stores and gift cards to cheat consumers

spinner image Gift cards are displayed in the checkout lines at a Target store in El Cerrito, California on Thursday, February 19, 2004. Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the two largest U.S. discount retailers, said fourth-quarter profit rose as customers bought more winter clothing and holiday gifts.
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Gift-card fraud losses reached a “staggering” $148 million in the first nine months of 2021, when nearly 40,000 victims bought cards for criminals, federal officials warned on Dec. 8.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alert, issued during the busiest shopping season of the year, states that gift-card fraud losses from January through September surpassed those for all of 2020. The agency’s warning highlights how Target has become the most popular destination for fraudsters.

  • Target-branded gift cards represented $35 million of all reported gift-card frauds, the most of any single brand. Losses resulting from card purchases at Target were much higher than for other brands popular with crooks: Google Play, Apple, eBay and Walmart.

  • Target was most often identified as the retail outlet swindlers instructed victims to buy gift cards from, regardless of whether the card being purchased was a Target card or another brand. Fraud victims also commonly were told to buy gift cards at Walmart, Best Buy, CVS and Walgreens, the warning states.
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spinner image chart showing that target is most popular retailer for gift card scams with over thirty five million in losses reported
Target-branded gift card were most often purchased by victims of fraud this year in cases reported to the Federal Trade Commission.Next were Google Pay, Apple, eBay and Walmart gift cards. Reported dollar losses are from January 1 – September 30, 2021.

“Whenever someone demands to be paid with a gift card, that’s a scam. It’s just that simple,” Emma Fletcher, an FTC program analyst, cautions in a blog post. “Gift cards are for gifts, not for payments.”

Scammers favor gift cards “because they are easy for people to find and buy,” she adds. “Scammers can get quick cash, the transaction is largely irreversible, and they can remain anonymous.”

Criminals don’t need the physical card to gain access to its funds, just the numbers on the card. Typically, the funds are depleted quickly, leaving victims empty-handed.

The new FTC data is worrisome because the “vast majority of frauds” are not reported to the government, so the data reflects “only a fraction of the harm these scandals cause,” Fletcher writes.


Crooks pose as Amazon or Apple employees

Many of the frauds analyzed occurred when a criminal posing as an employee of Amazon or Apple told victims to send them the numbers on the gift cards so they could fix a supposed security problem on their account, Fletcher explains. Victims reported having been contacted by a criminal who claimed to be from the Social Security Administration and told them that their bank accounts would be frozen as part of an investigation. They were told to buy gift cards to avoid arrest or to get access to their money. And some criminals who seek gift cards pretend to be a love interest, employer, sweepstakes or lottery company, or a relative in trouble.

AARP leads campaign against gift-card fraud

AARP has a campaign to educate consumers about the danger of giving gift cards except as a present for someone they know and trust. “Anytime you are directed to pay some obligation with a gift card, it is a scam. Full stop. You can't pay bills or taxes or tech support — or to have your Social Security number restored — with a gift card,” Kathy Stokes, AARP’s director of fraud prevention programs, said. 

See more Health & Wellness offers > recently reported that a St. Louis woman in her 80s lost $13,000 in less than four hours in September after a criminal told her to go to four Lowe’s home improvement stores and buy 26 Target gift cards, each worth $500.

In response to the FTC alert, Target spokeswoman Kayla Castaneda in a statement said: “Unfortunately, gift card scams are a persistent issue across the retail industry. Target takes these crimes extremely seriously and we use a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to mitigate fraud that includes technology, team member training and collaboration with law enforcement.”

Target has “increased in-store signage to warn our guests of common gift card scams, and we’ve heightened team member education so they can keep an eye out for potentially distressed guests buying gift cards and intervene as needed,” the statement added. “We also continue to implement new technology to prevent gift cards from being abused by fraudsters.”

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.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.

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