Con artists and fraudsters are always looking for ways to take your money. A classic scam resurfacing and gaining traction involves gift cards. Thieves posing as international corporations and government agencies are targeting the elderly and anyone who falls prey to their scheme into paying phony bills using gift cards.
Don’t be fooled; no reputable company or government entity calls customers nor accepts payment for goods and services using gift cards. Remember, gift cards are meant to be gifts, not coerced, urgent payments demanded under sketchy circumstances.
The gift card scam is so prolific that AARP claims nearly one in three adults says they or someone they know have been asked at some point to purchase a gift card to pay a bill, fee or some other debt or obligation, or even to claim a prize.
This is how the scam works: You get a call from someone claiming to represent the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, lottery, utility company or family member needing bail money. The caller will ask for immediate payment and direct you to buy a gift card or what they refer to as an “electronic voucher.” You are then asked to read the numbers on the back of the card or to send a photo of it so the thieves can drain the card’s value. The callers are often demanding to the point of threatening. Some callers warn they can shut off your utilities or other menacing consequences if their demands are not met immediately—speed is a key aspect of the con, since you’re more likely to make a bad decision if time is short and adrenaline is high.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said con artists’ intention is to pressure and panic you into meeting their demands. Victims who fall for the initial ploy, typically demanding $500 in cards, are often told to go back to the store to buy additional gift cards.
This con is being perpetrated in Malibu and last week was witnessed first-hand by 24-year-old Malibu Native Linus Gordon—the son of this reporter—who was able to thwart a gift card scam in progress. A Malibu man was nearly taken for $11,000 by purported Apple employees demanding payment to fix a technical issue. Gordon observed a “man on the phone frantically asking, ‘Where are the gift cards?’
“I knew about this scam,” Gordon said. “It seemed like he was definitely a potential victim. He was already at the store, on the phone trying to buy cards.” When Gordon approached the man, he said he could hear “someone yelling through the phone” demanding the man buy cards. Gordon asked the elderly man, “Do you know the person on the phone?”
“He was very flustered,” Gordon described. The man asked the caller if he was being scammed. The callers responded accusing Gordon of being a scammer, but Gordon told the man, “I’m not asking you for money.”
“I told him, ‘You’re being scammed. I can explain it,’” Gordon recalled. The man eventually gave Gordon his phone, saying the fraudsters kept calling and calling. Sure enough, when Gordon was handed the phone, a spoofed ID reading “Apple” appeared. Gordon blocked the number.
When Gordon alerted Ralphs to the scam, he said they responded, “Yeah, we see this sometimes.”
A Malibu Ralphs employee offered assurances that the grocer has protocols for Western Union and large denomination gift cards. Store officials declined to give precise limits that might be exploited by scammers. One employee said they ask customers what large denomination gift cards will be used for and remind customers that reputable companies are not paid using gift cards.
“We’ve had smart people nearly duped,” said one employee who was not authorized to speak for the grocery chain. He assured the company follows federal guidelines such as demanding social security numbers from customers buying high dollar gift cards. “We’ve helped a few people (realize) it was baloney.”
A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman declined to give the numbers of these crimes reported to law enforcement, but did say it was impossible to know how many people have fallen victim to the crime since most people are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been taken.
Remember, once the security numbers on gift cards have been used, that money is gone forever.