This past holiday season, millions of consumers bought gift cards for friends and family. They’re the perfect presents – no need to worry about whether they’ll fit or if they’re the right thing because, just as with cash, the recipients can use them to buy exactly what they want. But just as with cash, once gift cards are used, the money’s gone. And just as with cash, gift cards are an anonymous form of payment, so the users can’t be traced. That’s why scammers are increasingly asking people to pay them with gift cards. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 26 percent of the payments reported by fraud victims in the first nine months of 2018 were made with gift cards, a 270 percent increase from 2015.
While the scams vary, there are some common threads. Whether it’s someone pretending to be from the IRS demanding payment for overdue taxes, or claiming to be a relative or friend who needs money for an emergency situation, or promising big winnings in a sweepstakes or lottery, there’s usually a sense of urgency. You need to act NOW, before you can think about it. Secrecy is often another element of these scams. You’re instructed not to tell anyone, which is intended to stop you from getting advice that might dissuade you from making the payment. Scammers also take advantage of our basic decency. You treat people fairly and honestly, and you expect to be treated the same way. It’s hard to imagine that there are people out there who can lie so easily and convincingly to steal your money.
Some retailers that sell gift cards have become alarmed by these scams and are taking steps to protect customers. Best Buy, for example, is training employees to try to spot people who may be looking for gift cards to pay fraudsters and speak with them. It has also posted warning signs near the gift card racks. Last fall, with the encouragement of the Pennsylvania and New York Attorney General’s offices, Walmart, Target and Best Buy made some changes to their branded gift cards, reducing the number that can be bought at one time and the amount of money that can be placed on each card. Recently Best Buy released a new public service announcement in partnership with AARP and the National Association of Attorneys General to increase awareness about these scams.
These are good developments, but more needs to be done. Last September Senators Casey of Pennsylvania and Moran of Kansas proposed bipartisan legislation that would establish a Senior Scams Prevention Advisory Council, which would create model educational materials that retailers, financial-services companies, and wire-transfer companies could use to help identify and prevent scams against seniors. CFA supports that bill. It’s important to recognize, however, that fraud is constantly evolving and it’s not only seniors who are targeted. It requires a continuous effort, with government, businesses and consumer groups working together and using all types of outreach, to make people aware of fraud and remind them to stay vigilant.
The best advice is to Stop, Think, and Check It Out whenever you’re contacted unexpectedly by anyone asking you for money. Get advice from your state or local consumer agency, which you can find here or in the government listings in your phone book.