Fraud involving gift cards as payment has been on the rise since at least 2015, according to the Federal Trade Commission. While reported losses remain even at about $230 million between 2021 and 2022, reports themselves dropped by nearly 25% in 2022. This is good news, suggesting that consumers are getting the message that asking you to buy gift cards to address a financial issue is always a scam.
From another angle, AARP research in 2022 revealed that one in four adults have experienced giving or receiving a gift card that had no value on it, and more than half who experienced this scam reported they were unable to get a refund or credit for the missing funds.
Most recently, AARP worked with the University of Minnesota to better understand the experience of losing money to a gift card scam. Researchers conducted 35 in-depth interviews with consumers who had lost money as result of giving or receiving a gift card with a zero-balance or engaging in a gift card payment scam. Though types of scams differ, some common themes emerged:
- Scams have emotional costs. Research participants who lost money reported feelings of embarrassment and frustration when trying to recover funds from a zero-balance gift card. Others felt fear, panic, and loss of reasoning during encounters with gift card payment criminals. Many blame themselves and feel traumatized by the experience.
- Research participants feel there is a lack of accountability from industry, no consumer protection, and little empathy. Some were disheartened by law enforcement’s inability to help.
- For some affected consumers, the experience negatively changed their perceptions of gift cards.
This study sought to understand the consumer experience with gift cards, including their attempts to use cards that ultimately had a zero-balance and their engagement in a gift card payment scam. AARP partnered with Regents of the University of Minnesota to conduct in-depth interviews with 35 U.S. adults ages 18 and older who had ever experienced these gift card scams. Interviews were conducted from September 15, 2022 to November 15, 2022.