As holidays near, Ottawa woman warns of gift card scams after gas money swiped

An Ottawa woman says she bought these three gas cards as gifts in October but at least two were drained of their funds before the recipients could use them.
An Ottawa woman says she bought these three gas cards as gifts in October but at least two were drained of their funds before the recipients could use them. Supplied / Amy Beaudoin

As residents begin their holiday shopping, an Ottawa woman is sounding the alarm about gift card scammers, after Petro Canada gift cards she purchased at a grocery store in the city’s east end last month were wiped of funds before they could be used by their intended recipients.

Amy Beaudoin, 44, said she bought three gas cards — each for $50 — on Oct. 18, at the Metro on Innes Road in Blackburn Hamlet, where they were activated at the till.

She planned to give one to her partner’s parents for their upcoming anniversary and keep the other two as a Christmas present for her sister.

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But those plans went awry when her boyfriend’s 88-year-old father filled up his tank last week and the balance on his gift card came up as zero. The ordeal has turned into a case of missing money, missing digits on cards and many unanswered questions.

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“I was sobbing,” Beaudoin said.

“I said to myself: ‘I tried to start my shopping a little early so I wouldn’t be stressed about finances or anything, and what am I going to do now that I’m behind the eight ball and out this money?'”

The stay-at-home parent is trying to get a refund for all three cards from Metro and a company spokesperson confirmed the store is looking into her case.

Beaudoin also reported her predicament to Ottawa police on Sunday.

While he couldn’t comment on specific cases, Const. Gavin Morris of the Ottawa Police Service said the story of a tampered gift card that is purchased and quickly depleted — unbeknownst to the buyer — is a familiar tale.

“What we see for those particular cases are someone goes in, removes a bunch of them from the stack, records all the numbers and then put them back and then routinely checks the account to see if it’s been activated or if there’s money in there, and then once there’s money in there, transfers it over,” said Morris, a detective in the police service’s organized fraud unit.

And these kinds of scams only gets worse around this time of year, Morris added. Fraudsters know people are out buying gift cards ahead of the holidays and that the cards might remain activated with money on them for a month or a month and a half, he explained.

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Protecting yourself from gift card fraud and scams
Protecting yourself from gift card fraud and scams

After finding out the first gift card was a bust, Beaudoin said she tried to check the balance of her other two cards online but had trouble getting the website to recognize them.

When she took them back to Metro this weekend to get help, the customer service supervisor who helped her noticed that a digit was missing from the card number on two of the cards.

“There was no scraping or anything,” Beaudoin said. “It just looked like it was rubbed out and it looked like it was clear.”

Beaudoin has since been able to confirm that a second card was drained to $0.00 but hasn’t yet confirmed the balance of the third card because of the missing digit in the card number.

A missing digit could be an accident or a deliberate tactic, Morris said — but he noted that the card number itself “is not necessarily where [scammers] get the information from.”

“It’s from the bar code at the back,” he said.

READ MORE: Ottawa police issue warning about prepaid gift card scam

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for Metro sent a written statement that said the grocery store chain “takes gift card fraud very seriously.”

“When we receive a report of fraudulent gift cards from a customer, our customer care team and the affected store work alongside our third party gift card supplier during the investigation,” the statement said. “If the investigation concludes the card is compromised, a refund is provided to the customer by the store.

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“Our investigation in this case is underway and we will reach out to the customer when we have the results.”

Beaudoin said she’s hoping Metro will be able to tell her when and where her gift cards were spent. If she can’t get a refund from the grocery store, she said she’ll try disputing the charge through her credit card company.

Global News asked Metro what steps the chain is taking to avoid gift card fraud in its stores.

“We continuously remind our stores of best practices when it comes to fraud, and have recently done so ahead of the busy holiday period,” the store’s statement said.

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Beaudoin said the supervisor that assisted her at the Innes Road store took the remaining Petro Canada gift cards off the rack and said they wouldn’t be replaced until her case was resolved. Global News asked Metro to confirm this but the store’s statement didn’t include an answer.

Morris argued stores should be watching for anyone hanging out around their gift card carousels.

“Obviously, the stores want to be able to have customers easily access the products,” Morris said. “But at the end of the day, if there is an issue here, I think stores should take it upon themselves to make sure that people have confidence in the products that they’re buying.”

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Morris said the police force and loss prevention officers often work together to arrest anyone caught tampering with gift cards in-store.

Beaudoin said she wanted to share her story in case others had a similar experience at the same store location and because she’s “worried” for other folks purchasing gift cards this season.

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Morris recommended that customers planning to buy gift cards take the time to check the packaging to make sure the card hasn’t been tampered with. Any damage to the bar code or to the card’s security features are red flags, he said.

“If you have a gut feeling about something, if you feel like it’s not right, then there’s no harm in passing that particular card up and going for a new card or asking a manager to get a new card for you,” Morris said.

The Consumer Protection Ontario webpage also suggests buying gift cards from behind the counter, buying cards that have a “protective backing” or a “scratch-off” PIN number, and to always keep your receipts for gift card purchases.

Morris also cautioned residents to be aware of another gift card scam in which individuals receive a call from someone, perhaps claiming to be a bank employee, who tells them to go out and buy gift certificates to pay off an alleged debt.

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“No legitimate business will demand that you send gift cards to pay off debt,” Morris said.

N.B. woman speaks out after falling for gift card scam
N.B. woman speaks out after falling for gift card scam

Beaudoin said she bought a replacement Petro Canada gift card on Sunday for her partner’s parents — this time directly from a gas station, where it was kept behind the counter.

While she tested that card and confirmed there’s money on it, a now hyper-vigilant Beaudoin said she’s worried it might have been compromised as well because the Petro Canada website wouldn’t accept the security code on the back of the card when she tried to check the balance online.

Beaudoin said she’s reached out to Petro Canada to find out why and to report her other cards that were wiped of funds.

Global News asked Petro Canada what steps the company takes when an individual reports gift card fraud, if it could confirm where and when Beaudoin’s gift cards were spent, and about Beaudoin’s security code issue with her replacement card.

The company is “still digging into the details of this specific case” but does investigate “in any circumstance of reported fraud,” a spokesperson for Suncor, which owns Petro Canada, said in a statement.

“If it was determined that fraud was committed, we would ensure that the customer receives the amount that they had purchased in full,” Michael Lawrence, senior advisor of media and issues management, said.

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“We would ask that anyone who experiences an issue with a gift card connect with our customer service department so that can conduct the investigation.”

Beaudoin said her recent experience has her wondering if it’s simply “too risky” to continue purchasing gift cards.

“I’m fine going back to the 80’s. Back in the 80’s, we used to just take cash out, put it in a card and be done with it,” she said.

“I was reading online that when people [give] cash, it’s so impersonal, but I rather have cash than have nothing.”