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In ‘Do Me a Favor’ Scams, a Criminal Pretends to Be Your Pal

An increasingly common scheme involves impostors claiming to need help buying gift cards

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A few months ago, Sonia Nofziger, 59, received an email that appeared to be from the new CEO of the small tech company in Philadelphia where she works: “Hi, Could you possibly complete a task for me before I leave for a meeting? Send me your mobile num. Thanks. Kevin.” She didn’t think twice about emailing him her number, even though his message had come from a personal Gmail account. “He’d only been onboard for five or six weeks,” she explains, “and none of us knew him that well, because he works remotely.”

Then “Kevin” texted, asking her for a favor: He needed to purchase three $100 Apple gift cards for a charity. Could she buy them for him? He’d pay her right back. “It seemed a little strange, but I was like, fine, I’ll get it done,” she says. He asked her for the numbers on the back of the cards so he could relay them to the charity. Then he requested a couple more, she says, “and, even then, it didn’t seem that weird.”

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But when he asked a third time, “that was my alert that something’s not right.” She blocked his number but continued receiving messages from other numbers: “Where are you? Why aren’t you doing what I’m asking?”

Nofziger, a cousin of Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, lost $1,200 in this ruse — what Amy refers to as a “do me a favor” scam.

“We kind of coined the term,” she says, “because that’s literally what they start out with saying. Maybe it’s, ‘How are you doing? How’s the family?’ Then, ‘Can you do me a favor? Go buy these gift cards. I’ll reimburse you. Just make sure to take pictures of the front and the back, then send me the pictures.’ ”

Her cousin’s experience is not unusual, Amy adds: “A lot of these companies have their employee directories online. [Criminals] can see who the bosses are, they can see who the employees are. They know that there’s a power dynamic there.”

Sometimes someone’s email gets hacked, and the hacker has access to their contacts. The favor request may come through social media or text, and the criminal may pretend to be a friend, family member or colleague — anyone you might normally trust.

Sonia reported the incident to her company’s president, and they soon discovered that others on staff had been victims as well. Since then, all employees have been told that nobody in the company will ever ask them to purchase gift cards.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Versions of the ‘do me a favor’ scam

A common twist on this scam involves criminals posing as religious leaders such as ministers, rabbis or priests, says Sheryl Harris, who leads the “Scam Squad” at the Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs in Cleveland, teaching people how to spot and avoid scams.

“The scammers create an email that closely mimics the church or temple email address — it doesn’t exactly match but can be mistaken in a quick read —” she explains, “and then blast out an email to the house of worship’s directory.”

If someone responds, the self-described church/temple leader might claim to be busy and unable to get gift cards that had been promised to a charity. “In one case,” Harris says, “the scammer ‘minister’ said she’d promised a cancer care facility iTunes gift cards so women could listen to music as they got chemo.”

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At least one church member bought $1,000 in gift cards for the “pastor” and sent her photos of the numbers, as requested. When the victim arrived at church the following Sunday, she learned that the email was a scam.

Another common version targets teachers, says AARP’s Nofziger: “A teacher gets an email from the principal saying, ‘Hey, it’s Janice’s birthday at the front desk. Can you please run to do me a favor?’ ”

Consider the tone of the email

These bogus favor requests can be particularly effective because they come across as harmless and friendly — very different from, say, the upset caused in a grandparent scam, in which criminals pretend to be grandchildren in trouble and needing urgent help.  

“We train people to be wary of scare tactics,” notes John Buzzard, lead fraud and security analyst for Javelin Strategy & Research. “But what if it’s something that’s so innocuous as your best friend coming through, say, social media and saying, ‘Would you mind shooting $500 to someone? I can send you the payment later.’ It’s taking the tension and anxiety triggers out but still victimizing the person.”

The impostors are savvy, Amy Nofziger warns. “If you text, ‘This isn't your normal phone number,’ they’re like, ‘I lost my phone. That’s why I need help.’ And you just do it, because you think it’s your friend and you trust your friend.”  

How to avoid this scam

Don't trust. Verify the sender’s email address. If you receive a request for a favor from a faith leader, Harris suggests calling your house of worship to either verify that the request is legitimate or make officials aware of the scam so they can warn other members not to respond.    

Be careful with social media. Make sure your privacy settings on Facebook and other platforms allow only people in your network to see your content. Otherwise, criminals can find out who your family members and friends are, as well as personal information that will help them perpetrate their scam.

Beware of anyone asking you to buy gift cards. “One hundred percent assume that no one is ever going to ask you to buy them gift cards via text or email,” Amy Nofziger says. “If anyone needs a favor from you, they need to pick up the phone and call you.”

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.