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Gift Cards: Favorite Present in the U.S.? Or a Criminal’s Best Shot at Stealing Money?

We Americans love our gift cards. We love getting them, and we love giving them. But criminals love them, too, as a way to steal money from unsuspecting consumers, to the tune of millions of dollars every year.

The AARP Fraud Watch Network recently conducted a survey to gain insight into people’s experience with gift-card-payment scams. Here are some findings that give us all cause for concern.

  • More than one-third of U.S. adults say that they or someone they know has been approached to pay for something (like a service or a fee), to fix a problem or to help a loved one in a bind using a gift card.

  • Of those who were targeted, nearly one-quarter followed through and purchased gift cards in response to the request, believing they were taking care of a financial situation.

Legitimate businesses and government agencies will never ask you to make payments by purchasing gift cards and sharing the numbers on the back. In 100 percent of instances, this request is from a criminal who is lying to you. Here are red flags that you should be aware of to avoid becoming a victim.

  • Red flag No. 1: Someone tries to convince you that you owe a debt or other obligation, or that a family member needs urgent help, and the quickest way to address the situation is to purchase gift cards and share the numbers on the back.

  • Red flag No. 2: The circumstances you face have put you in a heightened emotional state (a key tool in scams) — often fear or excitement — and you feel pressured to act quickly.

  • Red flag No. 3: You approach a cashier to purchase the cards and the employee warns you that you may be the victim of a scam. (Trust that the retail clerk is trying to help you.)

If you are confronted by someone directing you to buy gift cards to pay for an obligation, it is a scam — full stop. Disengage immediately and report the perpetrator to the Federal Trade Commission at These reports are used to identify trends and to build cases against criminals.

If you have lost money to this act of fraud, go to your local police and insist that an officer take your report. Some police officers are unaware that scams are a crime and resist taking a report. Be persistent, as this may help you recoup losses if the criminals are brought to justice down the road.

Knowledge gives you power over scams. The AARP Fraud Watch Network equips you with reliable, up-to-date insights and connects you to our free fraud helpline so you can better protect yourself and loved ones. We also advocate at the federal, state and local levels to enact policy changes that protect consumers and enforce laws. 

P.S. We recently launched AARP VOA ReST, a free program that provides emotional support for people affected by a scam or fraud. ReST sessions are online, hour-long, confidential small groups and led by trained peer facilitators. Experiencing a scam can be devastating, but it doesn’t have to define you. Interested? Visit to learn more.

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.