Paying a debt by gift card? Don't fall for this scam

Despite years of warnings from government agencies, consumers are falling victim to debt collection scams involving gift cards more frequently than ever in 2021.
Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer

The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) latest "data spotlight" release shows $148 million in gift card payment scams have been recorded for the first nine months of 2021. This growing trend exceeds the total number and dollar amount of similar scams logged by the agency throughout the entirety of 2020. 

This type of scam involves a malicious party convincing the target that they are required to provide some form or payment to settle a debt. The grift usually comes with threats of legal action, wage garnishment, or jail time, should they not comply with the request of the fictitious company or government agency the caller claims to be representing. 

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In reality, these criminal actions are a way for unscrupulous individuals or criminal rings to secure gift card codes they can use illicitly or resell through online black markets for profit. 

The data spotlight shows more than 40,000 consumers were impacted by these scams during the first three quarters of 2021, with the practice peaking at $51 million and 14,000 reports during Q1 alone. Median losses for each of the incidents rose as well, from $700 in 2018 to $1,000 in 2021. Much larger thefts of $5,000 or more resulting from gift card scams also now represent more than 8% of reports, showing these thieves are becoming more brazen. 

The most popular gift card to request among scammers, by far, is one for Target stores. These represented $35 million in scam sales between January and September 2021. Google Play was a distant second at $17 million, followed by Apple ($16 million), eBay ($10 million), and Walmart ($6 million). 

Interestingly, even if the caller was directed to purchase a gift card for another retailer, Target was the most popular store to suggest victims use for their purchase. Walmart, Best Buy, CVS, and Walgreens were all also popular with scammers, the FTC said. 

If all of these facts weren't unsettling enough, the agency noted that some scammers even groom their victims to avoid detection. The FTC has evidence of criminals instructing victims to visit multiple stores to avoid suspicion by making several smaller purchases, with some even providing coaching on what to tell cashiers that ask questions about their orders. 

The FTC once again urged consumers to immediately hang up on any caller that claims to be attempting to collect a debt via gift card. Just in case it needs to be said again, no government agency or commercial entity of any kind will actually attempt to collect a debt from you via gift card, ever. The Federal Trade Commission suggests that anyone that believes they may have been targeted by a scammer visit its informational site on gift card scams while also reporting the incident to its fraud division. 

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