What Is a Google Play Gift Card Scam?
Hackers had hijacked her husband’s computer and blocked all access to it. The hackers would only relinquish control once they received four $400 Google Play gift cards.
Store-specific gift cards like these are easy to share, hard to secure, and available anywhere. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), gift cards are the number one payment method of choice for scam artists [*].
Scammers can be notoriously crafty in coming up with ways to convince victims to share the redemption codes found on the backs of these cards.
But this isn’t the only way scammers use Google Play gift cards to defraud victims. Common Google Play gift card scams employ a wide range of techniques — from phishing emails to elaborate social engineering schemes.
How do Google Play Card Scams Work?
Google Play gift cards allow cardholders to buy content in the Google Play store. However, there are also ways to convert Google Play balances into cash. Scammers collect victims’ Google Play gift card numbers and cash out the accounts before disappearing with their spoils.
Affinity fraud that impersonates trusted figures
A typical Google Play card scam may involve an imposter pretending to be a trusted community leader. These imposters often claim to be associated with local nonprofits or religious organizations. They reach out to members of the community and pretend the organization urgently needs money.
Once someone demonstrates a willingness to contribute, scammers request payment using Google Play gift cards. They often invent excuses to explain why regular card payments won’t do. As soon as they get the Google Play gift card redemption codes, the imposters disappear without a trace.
The three-way-call scam is also common. Someone offers to buy a gift card from a seller and asks the seller to verify the card by calling the issuing agency and confirming the PIN number while the buyer stays on the line.
Upon calling a number purporting to be Google Play, the seller is asked to type in the card’s PIN code. Scammers can record dialpad tones to decipher card numbers.
Automated bots that can steal Google Play codes
Other bad actors use automated systems to wrest Google Play card numbers from cardholders. These bots can scan for compromised account credentials exposed in data breaches and then flag vulnerable accounts.
Some bots can even look up and steal account balances all at once. Such automated gift card balance lookups are easy to replicate in large numbers.
Automated scams may also rely on compromised social media accounts. Here, scam bots may contact victims using broadcasted text messages.
These scams aren’t unique to Google Play cards. The same scam tactics apply to Apple, Walmart, and Amazon gift cards.
📌 Did you know? Scam artists may specifically target victims who are not familiar with digital gift cards. According to FTC data, senior citizens are more susceptible to this type of scam than younger Americans.[*]
Other Related Google Scams
It’s common to use Google Play gift cards as part of larger scams that can culminate in identity theft. In these cases, the gift card is a convenient substitute for cash. Sometimes Google products and services are the lifeblood of these scams.
- Tax payment scams induce people to pay overdue taxes immediately by using their Google Play card balance. Attackers may impersonate the IRS or another tax authority. They email or call their targets, telling them to pay overdue taxes. If victims do not comply, scammers threaten arrest, deportation, or Social Security penalties.
- Blackmail and extortion scams use guilt to manipulate people into paying bribes to conceal discreditable information. Scammers may claim to have recorded webcam sessions or other compromising content. They threaten to publish this content if the victim doesn’t pay using Google Play gift cards.
- Debt collection scams are similar to tax payment scams. Instead of impersonating the IRS, imposters pretend to work for a debt collection agency. They may threaten to confiscate physical property if they are not paid immediately. They may even publish a fake website to reinforce their story.
- Family emergency scams extort money from people using information about their family members. Criminals may impersonate family members, legal representatives, police officers, or hospital staff. They will demand immediate payment in Google Play gift cards to remedy a contrived emergency.
- Discount gift card scams can occur when scammers try to sell high-ticket items to the public. These items can be anything from upcoming concert tickets to expensive electronics and luxury goods. The seller promises a significant discount to people who agree to pay using Google Play gift cards. The buyer never receives the promised item after conceding to pay with a gift card.
- Tech support scams unfold in stages. First, scammers trick users into downloading malware that impairs some computer functionality. Then, they impersonate Google tech support representatives, offering to help in exchange for gift cards.
Why Would a Scammer Want Google Play Cards?
Scammers do not generally buy thousands of dollars worth of apps in the Google Play store. Rather, most find ways to turn Google Play card balances into cash. Google Play gift cards are uniquely valuable from this point of view.
Card balances convert into cash
Technically, Google does not allow Google Play account holders to convert their balances into cash. However, there are ways around this.
Certain apps allow users to buy cryptocurrency using their Google Play balance. Bad actors can buy crypto tokens and then resell them for cash. There are numerous other ways to cash out gift cards:
- Scammers may use money mules to move around illegally-acquired cash via gift cards.
- These money mules can also buy online items for scammers.
- Certain gift cards can be used at ATMs.
- Gift card numbers may be sold on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or eBay.
📚 Related: 10 Amazon Gift Card Scams You Need to Avoid →
Gift cards do not protect consumers
Google play gift cards don’t have the same consumer protections that credit cards and debit cards offer. They don’t need to be physically swiped at a terminal, and they do not expire or incur dormancy fees.
Scam artists can sell cards directly
Some scammers simply sell stolen Google Play cards directly for cash. This is one way that professional criminals launder their money. It makes it nearly impossible for authorities to trace the flow of money, since anyone can buy a Google Play card.
📚 Related: How To Track Down Someone Who Scammed You →
They’re more portable than cash
Google Play gift cards let criminals move money across state borders with minimal fees and little risk. The more money they steal from cardholders, the easier it is to launder other income streams and pay off accomplices.
Here’s How To Spot Gift Card Scams
There are many different types of gift card scams. However, they all share some common features. If you’re ever asked to pay with gift cards, keep in mind the following:.
1. Legitimate payment requests come with deadlines
If you’re late on payments, most organizations clearly communicate a deadline before which you must pay. Scam artists create a sense of urgency to convince victims to pay right away. Legitimate organizations never do this.
2. Gift card balances should only be used to buy products from the issuer
Google does not support using Google Play gift cards to buy anything outside the Google Play store. Nobody has a legitimate reason to ask for payment through a gift card.
3. Tech support professionals never solicit gift cards
Official tech support personnel never ask for payment in gift cards. The FBI recently issued a warning against scams in which criminals pose as tech support personnel working for large, reputable companies.
4. Banks never ask for payments using gift cards
Banks and other financial institutions have very clear payment processes. Common bank scams often entail con artists warning customers about supposed fraudulent activity on their bank account.
They ask customers to transfer balances to gift cards to protect an allegedly vulnerable account. Legitimate banks will never ask customers to transfer money to anyone, especially via gift cards or money transfer apps like Zelle.
5. Government agencies and utility providers can’t accept gift cards as payment
Many scams succeed by convincing victims that they owe debts to government agencies or other institutions. No government agency or public organization will request payment using any kind of gift card.
6. Scammers do not want cash
Scam artists can’t use cash the same way that they use gift cards. If a friend or family member needs money from you for an urgent situation or emergency, they will ask for cash — not gift cards. If you need to send money over a great distance, always use secure money transfer options instead of gift cards.
7. Gift card codes are not meant to be shared
Nobody except you should know your gift card PIN code on the back of the card. You may share that information with the issuer to check your account balance, but you should never do it on a phone call. Google lets you check your gift card balance online.
8. Google Play gift cards are widely available
One common scam involves people who claim that they live in a location that does not sell Google Play gift cards. They say they need to download an app or buy materials for school, but are unable to do so without help. Google gift cards, however, are available in every country that Google serves.
9. Dating app users can be victims, too
The NYPD cautioned residents to be wary if approached by people who claim to be contacts from dating apps. These fraudsters may weave stories similar to those described earlier. They may demand gift card payments for outstanding debts or other fictitious emergencies.
How Do You Prevent Google Play Card Scams?
Preventing Google Play card scams is a two-pronged effort. On one side, Google is taking steps to secure its cards against unauthorized use. On the other side, cardholders can take steps to recognize and report potential scams.
What Google is doing:
ScamSpotter is a collaborative initiative between Google and the Cybercrime Support Network. It launched an awareness campaign that focuses on the unbelievable stories most scammers devise to defraud victims. The service educates people about what to do when they receive suspicious messages that solicit gift card money.
Google has also partnered with the National Consumers League. This initiative focuses on researching the latest gift card scam techniques and publishing related findings. It raises awareness about the scams people should expect to face when using Google Play gift cards.
Behind the scenes, Google developers also work to improve gift card security features. One of the ways they do this is by geo-restricting app store access. Every country has its own version of the Google Play store.
Gift cards bought in one country cannot be redeemed in another country. This prevents a wide range of international wire fraud scams that could otherwise occur when using Google Play gift cards as currency.
What you can do:
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a real emergency and a scam. However, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself against Google Play gift card scams.
- Slow down. Be suspicious of anyone who creates a sense of urgency about payment. Exercise caution with people who use urgency tactics to avoid answering questions about themselves.
- Do your research. Take time to research authority figures who contact you and claim you owe them money. Find out if the organization they represent actually exists. You may find out it’s just an invented, official-sounding name.
- Never use gift cards as money. No person will ever legitimately demand payment in gift cards for any reason. Gift cards are meant to be purchased as gifts. There is no reason why any institution would ask for gift cards instead of money.
- Keep receipts from gift card purchases. Your receipts can help authorities launch an investigation if your card balance gets stolen.
- Only redeem Google Play gift cards in the Play store. Activate gift cards online only when you’re ready to use them. If you buy a card as a gift, encourage the receiver to use it right away.
- Sell unused gift cards only to legitimate gift card resellers. Don’t put them up for sale on websites like Craigslist. Never sell unused gift cards to strangers.
- Research and understand current scams. The IRS publishes consumer alerts about recent scams. This data can help you determine whether you’ve been entangled in a scam attempt.
How To Report Google Play Gift Card Scams
Google has a dedicated contact form that you can use to report gift card scams. Notice that the form asks for the card’s serial number but not the PIN redemption code.
Google only asks for redemption codes when users buy products in the Play store. If you have a Google account, you can report the scam through your account as well.
For other gift card scams, contact the issuing agency. Here are some of the most common gift card issuers and their customer support phone numbers:
- Amazon: (888) 280-4331
- eBay: (866) 305-3229
- iTunes: (800) 275-2273
- MoneyPak: (866) 795-7969
Next, you should report the scam to the authorities and your local police department. Multiple government agencies and institutions investigate gift card scams.
- The FTC operates a website for reporting fraud, including gift card scams.
- Your state attorney general may pursue legal action against scammers and issuing agents that don’t secure their cards well enough.
- Local law enforcement may be able to help you track down the people running the scam. Filing a police report can help you pursue legal action against scammers.
- The Better Business Bureau (BBB) takes gift card scams seriously. They can coordinate between business owners and customers to ensure that others don’t fall for similar scams.
- The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) helps warn people against cybercrime risks, including gift card fraud.
- The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) organizes complaints against companies that offer financial products, including gift cards. They can pressure card issuers to secure their gift cards more effectively.
On-the-spot Payments Always Indicate Scams
Gift card scams and scammers are unrelenting — they continue to invent elaborate stories to convince victims to part with their gift cards. A comprehensive study by BBB reports that the losses due to gift card scams nearly tripled between 2017 and 2020 [*].
These scams always rely on a time-sensitive need to send money to someone. The perpetrators always have excuses for not accepting checks, money orders, or credit card payments.
Scammers often wield urgency tactics to skirt around the specifics of such payments. Anyone who demands on-the-spot payment with a gift card is a scam artist.
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