Gift card scam alert: what you need to know to protect yourself

EDMONTON – A gift card may seem like the perfect present for that hard-to-shop-for person in your life. But for Kelly Neufeld, who bought one for his teenage daughter, it turned out to be anything but.

That’s because when his daughter went to use the $100 gift card she got for Christmas, she encountered a problem.

“It was rejected everywhere she tried to use it,” Neufeld said.

The family tried to check the balance online, but couldn’t because the last four digits on the back of the card had been scratched out.

“Tried calling 1-800 number and, again, they couldn’t help me without the full account number either.”

The receipt shows the clerk did load and activate the gift card when Neufeld bought it. But the problem is what happened before that.

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According to Cst. Elvin Toy, of the Edmonton Police Service’s Economic Crimes unit, gift cards can be very easily to manipulate.

The scams

In the case of the card Neufeld bought, what likely happened is that a thief took a photo of its numbers at the store, then regularly called the 1-800 number on the back until there was a balance on the card. That meant the card had been sold and activated.

The crook could then use the numbers to make purchases with the card, without actually having it in his or her possession.

“It’s 100 per cent anonymous. That’s why they love it,” explained Toy.

The other gift card scam that thieves use starts with them stealing two gift cards and switching their packaging. They keep one of the cards and bring the other back to the store, after carefully resealing it to make it look like it hasn’t been tampered with. When you buy it, the code that’s activated is actually the one belonging to the card in their possession; so when you try to use the card you purchased, it doesn’t work.

As tedious and time-consuming as the scams seem, Toy says that the lure of the free money makes it well worth it for the thieves.

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“They’re obviously going to target the high value cards — $200 and up — and the ones they can use the gift card in a variety of places so the VISAs, the Mastercards, the AMEX gift cards where they can be used at literally millions of merchants.”

What to look for

Gift card issuers are catching on, sealing cards in packaging that hides the numbers or requiring you to scratch an area to reveal the pin. Consumers are urged to choose these protected cards and inspect all cards for signs of tampering.

Police encourage stores to try to keep gift cards behind the till, where it’s more difficult for crooks to tamper with them.

For Neufeld, though, it’s still not enough to convince him to take the chance on another gift card, making his first gift card purchase also his last.

With files from Julie Matthews, Global News

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