Thursday, November 30, 2006

Gift Card Scam - Buyer Beware

More and more, you'll find gift cards for one store sold at another - the local supermarkets here have whole racks full of gift cards for stores like Home Depot and Barnes & Noble. This is very convenient, but be very careful about buying them. Make sure that the card you select has a strip covering a PIN# that needs to be revealed before the card can be used, and then also keep an eye out during the transaction to make sure the card you buy is the card activated and given back to you by the cashier. When I was alerted to this scam I was skeptical, but it does seem to be a real scam!

From snopes:

Ways in Which Thieves are Utilizing Gift Cards:

* Swindlers make note of the numbers displayed on cards being offered for sale, then periodically check to see if these numbers have gone live; that is, that the cards bearing them have been purchased and loaded with monetary values. When they find ones that have, they use them to make online ("card not present" aka "CNP") purchases and so drain them of their cash value before their rightful owners attempt to use them.

* Employees at stores where gift cards are being vended steal them off the rack, activate them with the stores' scanners, then go on their own shopping sprees, sometimes using plastic stolen in this fashion to purchase other cards, thereby laundering their ill-gotten goods.

* Thieves pretending to be customers engage in a bit of sleight of hand by swapping blanks (stolen on previous trips) for cards activated by clerks during the sale, then regretfully change their minds and cancel their purchases. Those manning the cash registers are none the wiser because it looks like they got back the same cards, but the fully charged cards ride out of the stores in the thieves' pockets. In December 2002, two Tennessee men pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges after they were caught running this scam in an operation that stretched across six states and cost Wal-Mart more than $35,000.

* Cards filched directly from store racks find their way to online auction sites, where the unsuspecting will bid on them, thinking they're getting a deal. The National Retail Federation advises consumers to purchase gift cards online only through reputable retailers and never through online auction sites, which may be dealing in stolen or counterfeit cards.

* Crooks will unobtrusively slit open bar code-bearing gift card packaging to remove new unsold cards and replace them with old used-up ones. When these nil-value cards are sold, the activation of the packaging's bar codes loads the real cards (which are in the thieves' possession) with the values they've been bought for. The hapless purchasers, the ones who forked over money for the cards, leave in possession of worthless bits of plastic.

How to Avoid Gift Card Scams:

* Purchase gift cards only from reputable sources, preferably directly from the store.

* Don't solely rely on a clerk's selecting cards for you from publicly-inaccessible stock as your one and only protection against being defrauded. Also examine both sides of cards yourself, keeping an eye out for signs of tampering and/or the exposure of the cards' PINs. Refuse to purchase cards where either is evident.

* If acquiring cards on the Internet, buy them from the online versions of the stores they are to be used in. Never buy them from auction sites, even if it looks like you could score a real bargain by doing so. Remind yourself that cards sold through auction sites have often turned out to be stolen or counterfeit.

* Keep your receipt as proof of purchase for as long as you have value stored on the card. Should you ever lose that gift card, use that receipt to ask the retailer to issue you a replacement. (Not all retailers will do this. But at least some do, so ask.)

* Immediately after buying a gift card in a store, ask the cashier to scan the card itself to ensure the plastic you bought is valid and bears the proper value. (This will protect you against the card's having been swapped out of its packaging for a zero-balance one.)

* Bear in mind that reputable companies will not ask gift card buyers to provide their Social Security numbers, bank account information, or dates of birth. If when trying to purchase such cards you're asked for this, walk away from the deal.

* If the card's issuer offers this option, register your gift card at that store's web site. Doing so gives you the ability to periodically check your card's balance online and so catch on to any misuse of the card far earlier than you otherwise would.

Happy Holidays!

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