It's been a banner year for scammers who like to make their victims use gift cards for payments. And the Federal Trade Commission said one retailer stands out above all others as the one scammers choose most often.
Nearly 40,000 consumers have reported gift card scams, losing $148 million in 2021, the FTC said. That amount, collected in the first nine months of 2021, was more than in all of 2020. In most cases, consumers said the scammers were impersonating large companies or government agencies -- a common tactic.
The gift card that appears to be the favorite for scammers in 2021 is Target. The FTC said Target gift cards accounted for $35 million in scam payments, which was more than twice as much as any other brand.
The median amount lost when Target cards were used was $2,500. FTC said that was the highest of any brand of card. A third of victims who used Target cards reported losses of $5,000 or more.
The FTC said scammers also are more likely to tell victim to go to Target to buy a gift card -- regardless of the brand of card -- than any other store.
A request for more information from the FTC as to why scammers seem to be most interested in Target was not immediately returned.
When asked if it had any insight as to why its stores and gift cards seem to have attracted so much interest from scammers, Target didn't respond to that specific question. In an email, the company said it works with outside security experts to reduce such crimes. It also educates employees on how to keep an eye out for customers who may be in the process of being scammed as well as adding signage to stores to warn customers.
Target noted this example from Ohio in 2019 of its workers thwarting a gift card scam in progress. Police said two employees noticed an elderly couple buying $2,000 in gift cards after ending a phone call as they walked into the store. Police said the couple had also purchased $5,000 in gift cards at another Target store less than an hour before that.
“Unfortunately, gift card scams are a persistent issue across the retail industry," Target said in the email. "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."
The median amount of money lost by consumers, regardless of the card used, has gone from $700 in 2018 to $1,000 today, FTC said.
How to avoid gift card scams
There are some tell-tale signs that you are the prey in a gift card scam. Experts say scammers will often use your emotions against you -- make you think you are in serious trouble if you don't do what they say right away.
Here are common signs you are being scammed, according to the FTC.
- The caller says it's urgent and you need to act immediately or something will happen to you. "But you don't, and it won't," FTC said.
- The scammer tells you specific cards to buy or specific stores to go to. They may also tell you to buy multiple cards, but get them at different stores to reduce suspicion.
- The caller may stay on the phone with you while you buy the cards and load money onto them.
- The scammer tells you to give them the gift card number and PIN. Once that's done, the scammer has access to the card and can spend the money immediately, which they often do before you can catch on.
- If you bought the gift card using a credit card, there is no guarantee your credit card company will forgive the charge since you consciously and willingly made the payment.
- Scammers may tell you they are from a government agency like the IRS or Social Security Administration and claim you have to pay taxes or a fine. It's not true, FTC said.
- They may also say also say they are from tech support for your computer. If a scammer has somehow gained access to your computer through malware, then they can even convince you there is something on your computer that is not there by spoofing it. Then they'll tell you to buy a gift card to pay for them to repair it.
- A similar scam is when you get an email from someone saying they have compromising images of you from your webcam and will release them to the world if you don't pay up. Don't do it.
- Scammers can also claim to be from your utility company and threaten to cut off your service immediately or that you've won a prize... but first, you have to pay them some fee with a gift card.
- Emergency scams are also popular -- making you think they are a friend or family member and that they need you to give them money via a gift card right away. Of course, the scammer will tell you not to tell anyone.
- Another scam is when you get an unexpected check in the mail. Then they tell you to the check was for too much and they want you to give them back the difference via a gift card. But it's a scam because the check is fake.
- Romance scams are also popular, which is when you meet someone on a dating website and they want to trick you by having you send them a gift card.
How do I contact companies if I've been scammed?
The FTC has provided this list of contact information for popular gift card companies so you can be sure you are reaching out to a retailer and not another scammer if you need to report fraud.
- Call Target GiftCard Services at 1-800-544-2943
- Call 1 (888) 280-4331.
- Keep the Amazon card itself and your receipt for the Amazon card.
- Chat with eBay customer support, or have a representative call you back
- Keep the eBay gift card itself and your receipt for the eBay gift card.
- Report the gift card scam to Google.
- Keep the Google Play card itself and your receipt for the Google Play card.
- Call Apple Support at 1-800-275-2273. Say “gift card” to connect with a live representative.
- Ask if the money is still on the iTunes card. If so, Apple can put a freeze on it. You might be able to get your money back..
- Keep the iTunes card itself and your receipt for the iTunes card.
- If you have a Steam account, report gift card scams online. Click the “Purchases” option, then click, “I have charges from Steam that I didn’t make.” Then click, “Contact Steam Support.”
- Keep the Steam card itself and your receipt for the Steam card.
- Report gift card scams to MoneyPak.
- Keep the MoneyPak card itself and your receipt for the MoneyPak card.
For any other merchant gift cards, check the number on the back of the card to reach them or report it directly to the FTC.