Police Reveal How to "Feel" Gift Cards to Avoid Getting Scammed
You can do this at the store before you make your purchase.
Gift cards are a timeless holiday present, taking the stress off of the gift-giver, who no longer has to worry about getting the right thing. And they're convenient: If you're looking for a gift card to a larger retailer, you usually don't even have to go to one of their locations to purchase it. Drug stores like CVS and Walgreens often sell a wide selection of gift cards for popular retailers—meaning you can easily find an option for everyone on your list. But while gift cards may be an easy present to buy and give, they're also an easy target for scammers.
Gift-card scams are nothing new, but fraudsters are constantly stepping up their game. With that in mind, the Pinole Police Department, of Pinole, California, took to Facebook to explain how criminals can con you, and what you can do to stop them.
When purchasing a gift card, the visible barcode is scanned at the register to allow you to pay the amount you want to gift, Patrol Sergeant Barry Duggan of the Pinole Police Department, explains in the video. Once you give it to the recipient, they take the physical card out of the cardboard envelope—which is purely decorative—and scratch off a sticker to reveal a code.
That code is the one you enter online or provide to a cashier when using the gift card for purchase. And that's what scammers take advantage of to steal funds when gift cards are purchased.
"Somebody was taking all of the cards from the store without paying for them," Duggan says, adding that once thieves have the cards at home, they use heat to melt the adhesive envelope holding the card and then cut off the portion of the card that has the access code.
"Then, they take the bottom half of the card [with the barcode]—which really means nothing now—put it back into the envelope, re-glue it shut, and just like that, you have a brand new gift card that you think … you're getting for your person for Christmas," Duggan says.
While some victims don't realize their money was stolen until they try and use the gift card, if someone opens their present to find that the card has already been cut in half, it's a pretty clear sign something is amiss.
Thankfully, there are a few simple tricks to avoid falling for this scheme, including just feeling the gift card to make sure it hasn't been tampered with.
"What we're advising to do is, when you guys are buying gift cards … feel for the entire card—it should be the same size as a credit card," Duggan says in the video.
Another option is to get permission from the store to ensure the entire card is contained in the envelope.
"With the permission of the store, when you go up to purchase these, as you're purchasing them, remove them from these folders and actually take the card and make sure that the whole card is there," Duggan says. "That way, when you give your present to a loved one this Christmas, they're actually getting that money and they can spend it on whatever they want, rather than somebody else spending it for [them]."
Gift-card scams like these aren't limited to California—they're on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) radar, with James Barnacle, chief of the financial crimes section, in the criminal investigative division of the agency, telling ABC News that there's been a spike in recent weeks.
To avoid any kind of gift-card scam, the FBI recommends looking for signs of tampering on the packaging, also checking to see if the silver scratch-off material has been altered. You can keep yourself even safer by buying gift cards sold behind the counter and keeping your receipts.