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New Gift Card Scam Steals Your Money Using a Fake Barcode

You might be handing your cash over to a crook the next time you buy one.

With holiday shopping in full swing, there's a good chance you've already picked up a few gift cards for some of the recipients on your list. They can be the perfect way to set someone up for a nice vacation, send them out for a great meal, or simply make sure the recipient gets exactly what they want from their favorite store. But while the stocking stuffers might seem like a convenient and safe way to pass along a little cash, you could still be exposed to a new type of gift card scam that steals your money using a fake barcode. Read on to see how you can avoid falling victim to this type of theft.

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Many different types of scams involve gift cards in some way.

black woman pays for gift using a gift card

Whether you're shopping at a high-end luxury department store or the pharmacy down the block, it's very easy to pick up a gift card practically anywhere. And since most come pre-loaded on a swipeable piece of plastic that might look just like your own personal credit card, it can be easy to assume that they're much more secure than passing cash along to someone. But unfortunately, crooks have adapted specific types of scams to take advantage of gift cards and leave victims high and dry.

Sometimes, it's a message from someone claiming to be your boss who says they need gift cards to purchase party supplies for an office event. In others, fraudsters impersonating the police can claim you owe fines and need to pay them immediately with a gift card to avoid arrest. Regardless of the method, authorities warn that gift cards have become popular with scammers precisely because of how easy they are to find and buy quickly.

"They also have fewer protections for buyers compared to some other payment options," the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns on its website. "They're more like cash: once you use a gift card, the money on it is gone."

But experts warn that you could still wind up a victim even if you're just picking one up from the store.

A new type of gift card scam uses a fake barcode to steal your cash.

Gift cards on a display

The next time you're perusing the store for a potential gift voucher, you may want to be extra careful with your selection. Scammers are now tampering with gift cards by outfitting the physical products with fake barcodes that they can use to steal your money, CTV reports.

In a TikTok post, former police officer Nichelle Laus describes how she attempted to purchase a $50 gift card for Canadian department store Winners in October. However, the cashier noticed that the card had rung up on the screen as a gas gift card before realizing that the item had been manipulated with a replacement barcode sticker.

If the employee hadn't noticed the mistake, Laus would've been stuck with an unactivated gift card while the scammer walked away with her funds. "You can see it's a white sticker. It looks like it was almost like laser printed," she explained in the video. "Like, it's really good quality. It's cut so precisely that you can literally lay it over the original barcode on top and you wouldn't even notice the difference, unless you really look at it and unless you really feel it."

Laus says she became more vigilant while shopping after she became aware of the scam—and found another example of doctored merchandise. In an Instagram video posted on Dec. 5, she describes picking up a $100 Playstation gift card in the store to discover the barcode had been changed. When she brought it to the cashier to check, the system showed that the manipulated barcode would actually send funds to a gift card for a liquor store, CTV reports.

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Scammers can also steal some gift cards without physically manipulating them.


Unfortunately, doctoring items in stores isn't the only way you can wind up losing money. Scammers have been able to manipulate the system so that even gift cards that appear to scan correctly can get emptied almost as soon as they come off the rack, local San Diego NBC affiliate KNSD reports.

According to experts, hackers have developed a sophisticated system that allows them to use data breaches to access gift card numbers without needing to tamper with packaging or even physically touch the item. "Somebody could get into the organization that's holding those funds," Niko Behar, a cybersecurity professor at the University of San Diego, told KNSD. He added that such scammers then use an automated code to scan for whenever the card has been activated at the cash register, allowing them to steal the funds before the purchaser or gift recipient ever gets to use it.

Behar said that he's dubious of physical gift cards sold in stores for this reason. "I'd say [there's] a 40 to 50 percent chance they've been emptied," he explained.

Here's how to avoid losing money in a fake barcode gift card scam.

gift cards on display at target
Cassiohabib / Shutterstock

Even if physical gift cards present a new type of risk, there are still ways you can avoid losing money to a fake barcode scam. According to Laus, the easiest way is to use your fingers to check if they've been doctored in any way.

"Take that extra minute to not only feel the barcode on the back, try and lift it up," she suggests in her video post. "If it's an actual sticker, you'll lift that sticker up and notice that that sticker doesn't match the number underneath," adding that you should also check that the item that rings up at the cash register matches what you're purchasing.

Behar points out that opting for a digital gift card is often a much more secure option than grabbing a physical item from the store. But if you do find yourself picking them up in person, be sure to carefully inspect the packaging and try to take the cards hanging at the very back of the rack. If you receive a gift card, he also suggests using them or registering them as soon as possible to make sure they're not skimmed, he tells KNSD. You should also be sure to save your receipt so you can file a claim if it does end up stolen.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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