What Is a Steam Card Scam?
A North Carolina woman was startled to receive an email in March, 2021 that appeared to be from Amazon.[*] What looked like an order confirmation for an expensive laptop and camera should not have alarmed her. But she hadn’t bought those items.
Conveniently, the email also listed a customer service number. Panic-stricken, she called it hoping to report fraud right away.
Instead of talking to a helpful representative, the man who answered insisted that scammers were "getting into her pension and savings.” To prevent more fraudulent activity, he said she had to go to Target and load gift cards worth $500 each. He explained that he would pay the scammers off and then pay her back.
But of course, those other scammers never existed — the man on the line was the scammer. In the end, she bought $16,000 worth of gift cards that she never saw again.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported that gift card scam incidents nearly tripled between 2017 and 2020. Yet, according to AARP, nearly a quarter of U.S. adults are unaware that gift cards are a form of payment commonly used in scams.[*]
Among the increasing reports of such types of fraud are Steam Wallet gift card scams. While Steam gift cards are typically used to buy video games sold by the gaming platform, they can also be used to steal money or credentials.
How Do Steam Card Scams Work?
The most common form of Steam card scams starts with attackers pretending to be well-known businesses.
They call, text, or email victims saying that there’s something wrong with their accounts. To salvage the accounts, scammers pressure victims to buy Steam gift cards and then send them the activation or PIN numbers. From there, scammers:
- Sell the gift card(s) online.
- Buy items with the gift card and sell those items online.
- Buy items and then send a letter to the Steam support team saying that the gift card was used in error, and that the sender needs the money back.
But that’s just one variation of a Steam gift card scam. Scammers can also use the following methods to trick victims:
Fake PayPal invoices
Many people pay for purchases using their PayPal account and expect to receive an invoice. Scammers take advantage of this behavior and adjust the Terms and Conditions or Notes to make it seem like the victim still owes them money. Then, they ask for the balance in the form of a gift card.
Another PayPal scam convinces victims to share Steam gift card codes with the promise of repayment through PayPal.
Steam phishing emails
Scammers can mimic the look and tone of Steam emails and send users phony promotions or discounts. Thinking they’ll snag a deal, victims mistakenly click on phishing links from which scammers can steal their credit card data.
📚 Related: Is Minecraft Safe For Kids? What Parents Need To Know →
Impersonating Steam administrators
Some scammers pose as Steam administrators and say that a victim’s account is compromised or is being shut down. They claim that the only way for the victim to recover the account is to pay a fee via Steam Wallet.
A different variation of this scam involves someone claiming to have accidentally reported your Steam account. They may apologize before suggesting that account recovery might only be possible with a Steam administrator.
The alleged Steam administrator will threaten account deletion unless you relinquish your account login details.
📚 Related: Online Gaming Safety For Kids: What Parents Need To Know →
Payments using Steam Wallet gift cards
Scammers have also been known to persuade victims to make payments using Steam gift cards. While negotiating the sale of a vehicle online, scammers may press a potential buyer into sharing Steam gift card codes as payment.
Steam trade scams
Fraudulent Steam users may convince others to engage in a trade, gift, or market transaction with the intention of not holding up their end of the bargain. Some common types of trade scams include:
- Money for Steam trades: Scammers may promise to make payments via Steam Wallet codes or digital gift cards to complete a trade. They may get away without paying by sending fake codes, charging back the gift card, or using stolen credit cards to buy the gift card.
- High prices for your low-value items: If someone offers to buy your sale items on the Steam Market at prices higher than your listed amount, they could be using fraudulent Steam Wallet funds.
📚 Related: Why Scammers Want Gift Cards (and How To Avoid Gift Card Scams) →
Why Are Steam Card Scams on the Rise?
Scammers target people of all ages
Even avid Steam users, who are typically younger gamers, can fall for scams if they don’t stay diligent. Gift card scams mostly affect older people who may not be aware of the many forms that gift card scams can take.
📌 Did you know? Consumers over the age of 65 are more likely to lose money to gift card scams than younger consumers.[*]
Steam cards can be physical or digital
You can buy Steam cards at a retail store or online, which gives scammers more channels through which to carry out their scams.
If Steam doesn’t work, scammers will use other gift cards
Keep in mind that Steam isn’t the only platform that is susceptible to gift card scams. eBay gift cards, Google Play cards, Apple gift cards, Amazon gift cards, Walmart gift cards, and Target gift cards can all be used to steal money, inventory, or personal information.
📚 Related: The 10 Worst Walmart Scams & Fraudulent Schemes of 2023 →
Why Do Scammers Want Gift Card Numbers?
Scammers heavily favor gift cards like Steam Wallet gift cards for payment, and that’s because of the unique nature of gift cards. They have:
- Poor tracking: Unlike typical merchandise, most storefronts like Steam don’t have a way to trace each gift card. Once the card is activated, it’s no longer trackable.
- A lack of consumer protection: You may assume that gift cards have the same protections as debit or credit cards. But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are no consumer protections available for gift cards. The only way to recover funds is to dispute a charge on your credit card.
- Near-instant transactions: Gift cards are a way for fraudsters to instantly gain payment — similar to Cash App or Zelle. Consumers may not even know they are victims until it’s too late.
- No telemarketer verification: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) that requires “express verifiable authorization” when someone pays for an item with a method other than a credit or debit card. However, the TSR does not apply to gift cards, making it difficult for consumers to discern between a typical sales pitch and a Steam card scam.
- No physical swiping: Closed-loop gift cards don’t need to be physically swiped. Scammers only need a card number and an activation number or PIN to use them.
- Flexible expiration: Because of the Credit CARD Act of 2009, gift cards don’t expire until five years after the activation date; they do not incur dormancy fees either. Scammers can collect Steam or other gift card information and store it for years before use, which can complicate an investigation.
- Reloadable features: Steam Wallet cards and other gift cards can top up a physical gift card that a scammer already has, again making it more challenging to follow their trail.
- Easy cash-out processes: Scammers can use gift cards to move around illegally-acquired cash, or use mules to buy online items via gift cards on their behalf. Some gift cards can be used at ATMs to obtain cash directly. And virtually all gift card numbers can be sold on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or eBay — or exchanged for bitcoin.
📚 Related: Is Roblox Safe For Kids? 2023 Guide For Parents →
9 Ways to Spot Gift Card Scams
Because gift cards are so flexible, scammers have found multiple ways to demand them as payments. Scammers solicit victims by posing as:
1. Government representatives
Some scammers impersonate government agencies like the Social Security Administration (SSA) to gain more credibility.
They tell victims that without handing over a gift card, they will “face frozen accounts or even arrest.”[*] Terrified that they’ll lose access to accounts or be put in jail, victims comply.
2. Family or friends
Cybercriminals have various ways of harvesting your personal information — including the names or even the phone numbers of your family members and friends.
Using your personal information and contacts, they create fake profiles on social media and solicit victims for money. Because victims think that the request is coming from a trusted source, they oblige.
3. Business vendors
Scammers can also find information about where victims work and use it to masquerade as a victim’s boss or peer. The scammers may say that a vendor needs to be paid via gift cards, or that clients need to be sent Steam cards as holiday gifts.
4. Tech support
Sometimes bad actors pose as tech support, offering to “fix” a victim’s computer or “remove a virus.” In exchange for these false services, the scammer expects the victim to pay in the form of a Steam card. Or, they may create a fake website that looks like the Steam gift card checkout page and then steal the victim’s banking information.
5. Romantic interests
Criminals are notorious for preying on people seeking companionship by orchestrating heartstring scams. After they’ve won over victims, romance scammers begin asking for money in the form of gift cards.
In fact, just last year, a Pennsylvania widow lost over $39,000 in a romance scam.[*] The scammer posed as a love interest, pursuing her on Facebook and inventing dozens of scenarios in which he needed gift cards to pay for a lawyer, visa, and more.
6. Part of a prize, sweepstakes, or lottery campaign
Really, the only legitimate way to win money is through a state or city lottery. All other online sweepstakes, competitions, or prizes are bogus; claims to use gift cards as a vehicle for sending money are part of the scam.
7. Interested buyers
Another way scammers get a hold of gift card numbers is by initiating three-way calls to check the balance of a gift card that someone has put up for sale on a third-party site.
The buyer (also the scammer) asks the seller to confirm the balance on the card while on the phone with the card issuer. As the seller types in the PIN number on the back of the card, the scammer records the touch tones and hangs up before paying for the card.
8. Utility companies
Scammers are always trying to find ways to intimidate their victims. Besides posing as government agents from the SSA or IRS, they may try to impersonate a gas, electric, or water company representative. They threaten to turn off a victim’s service and demand gift cards to pay (non-existent) overdue payments.
9. Vehicle salesmen
The BBB gets complaints daily from U.S. and Canadian citizens who think they’ve purchased a car online using a gift card — but the car never materializes.[*] In most cases, those cars never existed — scammers just used them as ploys to steal money.
How Do You Prevent Steam Gift Card Fraud?
Steam has recognized a spike in reports of Steam card wallet scams and has taken steps to boost safety on the platform. Below, we’ll describe what Steam is doing to prevent gift card scams and share other measures that you can take to avoid falling into Steam card scam traps.
What Steam is doing:
First, Steam has prevented Wallet funds from being gifted or transferred to another account. The company has also imposed currency restrictions on Steam Wallet codes. This decreases the likelihood of funds being unlawfully used overseas.
That way, users can easily identify counterfeit versions. If you are the victim of a scam, Steam encourages you to continue reporting incidents so that they can respond accordingly.
What you can do:
Online scams are still happening even with Steam’s restrictions in place, so it’s important to stay vigilant. Whenever possible, try to:
- Keep your gift card purchase receipts. Even if you accidentally provided the codes to a scammer, your receipt will be helpful evidence when you contact Steam and your local police department.
- Pay for gift cards with a credit card. When you realize that you’re a victim of a Steam card scam, contact your credit card company and dispute the charge.
- Pay attention to in-store signage about gift cards. Be wary of any competitions or sweepstakes, as they are likely part of a scam. Also, be sure to cross-compare gift cards with the screenshots on Steam’s website. Don’t ignore any signage that retailers display about buying gift cards in bulk.
- Avoid buying Steam cards in bulk, especially online. It’s easier for scammers to obtain card numbers and PINs when you have more cards, and it’s harder to keep track of the ones you’ve activated.
- Only activate cards when you’re ready to use them. Remember, Steam cards that haven’t yet been redeemed may be eligible for a refund.
- Never share your Steam Wallet codes with strangers. Treat Steam just as you would a sensitive work application — don’t give your codes to anyone under any circumstances. People who push you to give up codes are likely bad actors.
- Secure your Steam account with multi-factor authentication (MFA). Adding another layer of security makes it tougher for scammers to hack your account and steal Steam card activation codes or PIN numbers.
📚 Related: What Are the Risks of Online Gaming? (2023 Guide For Parents) →
Were You the Victim of a Steam Card Scam? Do This
Realizing you’re the victim of a Steam card or other gift card scam can be discouraging, but the good news is that there are several steps that you can take to get your money back.
First, you should contact Steam Support. The Steam support staff will ask you about your case, and the more information you can give them — such as your receipt, purchase date, or purchase amount — the greater chance you’ll be reimbursed. They’ll give you a case number and keep you updated on the progress of your ticket.
If you’re the victim of a different gift card scam, reach out to the corresponding issuing company:
- Amazon: (888) 280-4331
- eBay: (866) 305-3229
- Google Play: (855) 466-4438
- iTunes: (800) 275-2273
- MoneyPak: (866) 795-7969
To legitimize your case, help others who may be dealing with a similar issue, and to assist officials in finding and stopping cybercriminals, you should also report gift card scam incidents to:
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- Your state attorney general
- Your local law enforcement
- The Better Business Bureau (BBB)
- The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
Gift Cards Are for Gifting — Not Payments
Although gift cards can offer a simple and efficient way to send holiday or birthday gifts, they can also be highly effective vehicles for scams.
And that’s largely due to a lack of gift card regulation. Gift cards don't have volume restrictions, enforced waiting periods, or tracking numbers. Worst of all, most people aren’t even aware of gift card scams because they don’t come with any warnings.
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