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Why Do Scammers Want Gift Cards?

Is it safe to pay with gift cards? Learn the latest gift card scams and why scammers always seem to want gift cards.

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      Is Someone Asking You To Pay With Gift Cards? It’s a Scam

      Gift cards have become one of the most popular payment methods for scammers as they’re easy to buy and share, hard to trace, and nearly impossible to refund once their balance has been spent.

      According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [*]:

      In the first half of 2023, Americans lost nearly $110 million to gift card scams.

      While gift cards can offer legitimate ways to purchase goods and services, the fact that companies treat them like cash makes them prime targets for scammers.

      In this guide, we’ll explain why scammers want gift cards, what they can do with them, and how to avoid the most common gift card scams.


      Why Do Scammers Want Gift Cards?  

      Gift card scams include any phishing, imposter, or social engineering scam where fraudsters demand gift cards as their payment method. Fraudsters all prefer different types of gift cards — but the most common scams ask for gift cards from Target, Google Play, Apple, eBay, Walmart, and Amazon.

      Scammers want gift cards for a number of reasons, including:

      • Gift cards are readily available and easy to buy. Nearly every big box department store, drug store, and convenience store has a rack full of gift cards, meaning buying them doesn’t necessarily look suspicious.
      • Gift cards can be treated as cash. Once you send a scammer the numbers and PIN on a gift card, they can use it however they want. Certain cards, such as Visa or Mastercard prepaid gift cards, are essentially the same as cash.
      • Scammers can easily sell gift cards online. Fraudsters can sell stolen gift cards at a discount online or copy down gift card codes from stores and resell them as soon as you activate the cards.
      • Gift cards often can’t be refunded, traced, or disputed. Retailers can rarely trace gift cards, and it’s difficult for consumers to prove they weren’t the ones who used them. Scammers know that as soon as a gift balance is compromised, the money is theirs.
      • Gift cards can be used to buy cryptocurrency. Even if you can trace a gift card, scammers can transfer them to untraceable cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin and Ethereum.
      • Gift cards aren’t tied to an individual or account. Even if you’re buying a gift card for a specific someone, the recipient won’t have their name tied to it. As far as retailers are concerned, if you have a gift card’s numbers and PINs, it’s yours.
      🥇 Get award-winning protection against online scammers. Aura combines #1-rated identity theft and fraud protection with cutting edge digital security to keep you safe from scams, fraud, and identity theft. Try Aura for free today.

      Watch Out For These 7 Common Gift Card Scams

      Here’s how seven of the most common types of scams work, the red flags to look out for, and what to do if you’re the victim of gift card fraud.

      1. Phone imposters asking for payment via gift cards

      Gift card scams often happen over the phone. Scammers pretend to be calling from a tech support company, well-known organization, or government agency — and threaten victims with fines, bogus payments and fees, or jail time if they don’t send them gift cards.

      In another common version of this scam, fraudsters call and pretend to be from your bank’s fraud department. They claim that your account has been compromised, and the only way to protect your funds is to transfer your balance to gift cards and then move it to a “secure” account.

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Know how and why government agencies or companies will contact you. The IRS, FBI, or other agencies will not contact you out of the blue — and they especially will never demand payments in gift cards.
      • Never give up money or personal information over unsolicited phone calls. Instead, hang up and contact the company or agency directly to confirm that the call or message was legitimate.

      ⛳️ Related: The Latest Google Play Card Scams and How to Report Them

      2. Physical gift cards that have been emptied before you purchase them

      Gift card scams don’t just occur over the phone or online. Scammers can copy down gift card numbers from store displays, cover the back with a similar silver sticker, and then steal the card’s funds once it’s activated — you’ll only when your gift card payments are declined.

      Some fraudsters may even place their own barcodes over the back of the gift card, which means any money you put on the card will go straight to the scammer’s card instead.  

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Run your finger over the back of a gift card before purchasing it. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports that scammers are adding new barcode stickers on top of real gift card barcodes that automatically deposit balances into scammers’ gift card accounts [*].
      • Avoid buying gift cards with damaged packaging. Scammers may have tampered with the barcodes or already used the cards and PIN numbers.
      • Register your gift card if possible. Associating the card with you and your account can help if you need to report a stolen balance later.

      ⛳️ Related: 10 Amazon Gift Card Scams You Need To Avoid

      3. Scammers on dating sites or apps asking for gift cards

      Americans lost over one billion dollars to romance scams in 2022, according to the FBI [*] — with much of the losses occurring in the form of gift cards.

      In romance scams, fraudsters create fake profiles on dating sites and apps, quickly build relationships with their victims, and then ask for gift cards as gifts, to pay for them to come visit you, or to “help” with a family emergency. The stories can be elaborate, emotional, or even threatening — anything to manipulate the victim into sending gift cards to the scammer.  

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Never send gift cards or cash to people you’ve only met online. Real love interests rarely ask for money; if they do, they probably won’t ask for it via gift cards. Even if you think the person is real or will pay you back, don’t buy them gift cards.
      • Insist on meeting in person. Calling, texting, or messaging through an app can conceal a scammer’s identity, so try asking to meet the user in person. If you do meet, make sure you meet somewhere safe or public, and inform friends of where you’re going and whom you’re meeting.
      • Report romance scammers to the dating app or site. They may be able to trace the IP address and ban the person from the platform.

      ⛳️ Related: The Unexpected Dangers of Online Dating

      4. A “friend in need” asking you to buy gift cards for them

      A recent gift card scam involves hackers taking over your friend or family member’s social media or email accounts and asking for “help” buying gift cards for a mutual friend.

      In one example, three women were asked by a mutual friend over email to help her buy gift cards for her niece’s birthday and share the card’s information [*]. Luckily, the women didn’t comply, allowing law enforcement to step in and shut the scammer down.

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Analyze the message. Did the person create a false sense of urgency or use phrases and words that your friend wouldn’t use? Is the message vague? If anything feels off, don’t give in to any requests.
      • Confirm the message with your friend or family member. If your friend doesn’t know what you’re talking about, tell them they may have been hacked — and immediately stop contacting the person who is impersonating them on social media.

      ⛳️ Related: Was Your Email Hacked? How To Know and What To Do

      5. Discounted gift cards on Craigslist, Marketplace, and other sites

      Some scammers target buyers on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or eBay with discounted gift cards. While there are legitimate gift card resale sites, individuals on these types of marketplaces are almost always trying to scam you with fake, stolen, or used up cards.

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Beware of too good to be true deals on online marketplaces. Fraudsters offer gift cards significantly below face value to entice you and get you to look past the red flags of their scam.
      • Don’t trust third-party “balance checker” websites. Some scammers will send you links to websites claiming to “check” the balance on your gift card. At best, these sites are fake — but they could also contain malware or other viruses.

      ⛳️ Related: What Is the Target Gift Card Scam? (How To Avoid It)

      6. Fake giveaways asking for gift cards to release your winnings

      Scammers use elaborate sweepstakes schemes or pose as legitimate institutions like Publishers Clearing House to trick victims into thinking they’ve won a car, laptop, or lump sum of money. But in order to collect your prize, you must first pay for “taxes” or “fees” with gift cards.

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Never pay to win. Legitimate sweepstakes won’t make winners pay for prizes. You might be asked to verify your identity, but you’ll never have to pay for processing fees, taxes, or handling charges — especially via gift card.
      • Paying more won’t help you win prizes. Some scammers hint that paying will increase your chances of winning other prizes. Don’t believe it. Real sweepstakes are free to enter, and winners are drawn at random.

      ⛳️ Related: How To Avoid The 8 Latest eBay Gift Card Scams

      7. Job scams using gift cards as payment

      Especially during the holiday season, scammers target victims with temporary and work-from-home job offers.

      In one popular job scam, fraudsters send a fake check with instructions to buy prepaid gift cards, send their numbers and PINs to the “employer”, and then keep the remainder. But a few days after buying the gift cards, the check will bounce — and the amount will be withdrawn from your account.

      How to identify and avoid these gift card scams:

      • Never send gift card codes to strangers. Simply put, these sorts of arrangements are almost always a scam. If your gut is telling you something is off, trust it.
      • Wait for a check to clear before spending money. There’s a delay of a few days between when the money from a check shows up in your bank account and when the check officially clears. If in doubt, call your bank and find out the status of the check.
      🛡 Don’t let scammers steal your money (or identity). If you accidentally give scammers your personal info, they could empty your bank account or take out loans in your name. Try Aura’s award-winning identity theft protection service free for 14 days and secure your accounts.

      How To Identify a Gift Card Scam: 6 Warning Signs

      The unfortunate truth is that gift cards can be used in almost any scam — and more Americans than ever are falling victim. According to AARP [*]:

      “Nearly one in three Americans have been targeted by a gift card scam.”

      While these scams can be sophisticated, there are warning signs that you can learn to spot.

      Here’s how to tell if you’re dealing with a gift card scam:

      1. You’re asked to pay by gift card for services that should accept other forms of payment. If someone claims to be from the IRS, your bank or utility company, or a similar institution and asks for gift cards, they’re scamming you. These companies and agencies will not ask you to pay with gift cards.
      2. You’re told to use gift cards to move funds or “protect” your bank balance. Transfers and balance protection are natively built into banking platforms and never require gift cards to move funds or complete a wire transfer.
      3. The person requesting that you buy gift cards creates a sense of urgency. Fraudsters may request gift cards to stop one of your accounts from being closed or even to “prevent” fraud on one of your debit cards. This is a lie.
      4. You’re told to stay on the phone while you buy gift cards. Established organizations won’t ask you to buy gift cards, and they certainly won’t keep you on the phone while you’re doing it. Scammers adopt this strategy to ensure victims follow through with their demands.
      5. Gift cards are located in an open and easily accessible area of a store. In some retail stores, gift cards are displayed without much security. Scammers take advantage of these situations, as they can swipe gift card numbers on the backs of the cards for later use.
      6. Too-good-to-be-true deals on used gift cards. When scammers sell used gift cards at unbelievable prices, it’s because they’ve already stolen the numbers on the cards. Once you activate one of these cards, you’ll lose the gift card balance.

      The bottom line: Gift cards should only be used as gifts — not as payment for services, fines, or goods. If anyone pressures you to buy or send them gift cards, it’s a scam

      Did You Pay a Scammer With Gift Cards? Do This

      If you’ve already paid a scammer with gift cards, it’s important to act swiftly. Here’s what you can do to try and get your money back:

      Document everything

      The more proof you have that you’ve been scammed, the better chance you’ll have of getting a refund from the company that issued the gift card. Try to collect:

      • Bank account statements and receipts showing your purchase.
      • Phone numbers and email addresses that scammers used to contact you.
      • Phone call summaries or copies of emails and text messages.

      Stop talking to the scammer

      Once you’ve collected your documentation, break off all contact with the scammer. Resist the urge to tell them off, as that could push them to delete conversations and cover their tracks.

      Freeze your credit with all three bureaus

      If you gave out any credit card information — and especially if you accidentally exposed your Social Security number — you need to freeze your credit as soon as possible.

      Freezing your credit prevents anyone from opening new lines of credit in your name or accessing your credit score. This is an essential step in protecting your credit from scammers.

      To freeze your credit, you need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually:

      Experian Security Freeze — P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
      Equifax Information Services LLC — P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348-5788
      TransUnion LLC – P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

      Update your passwords

      If you gave scammers personal information, they could use it to break into your online accounts — such as your bank. Whenever you’re a victim of fraud, it’s a good idea to update your passwords with ones that are secure and unique.

      Here are some best practices for securing your online accounts:

      • Use long and unique passwords. The length and uniqueness of a password can be more important than its complexity. Opt for passwords that are at least 10 characters long.
      • Store your credentials with a password manager. Aura’s password manager securely stores all of your passwords and can even warn you if your credentials have been leaked in a data breach. With a single click, Aura can automatically update your password to be more secure on select sites.  
      • Secure accounts with two-factor authentication (2FA). Adding 2FA makes it much harder for hackers to break into your accounts. For even more security, use an authenticator app such as Authy rather than SMS for receiving 2FA codes.

      ⛳️ Related: Was Your Walmart Account Hacked? Do This!

      Scan your devices for malware

      If scammers targeted you online, they may have also infected your devices with malware that spies on you and steals your sensitive information. Install antivirus software and scan your devices to make sure they haven’t been compromised.

      🔎 Scan your devices for viruses — for free. Aura’s integrated antivirus software can protect your devices from malware and other viruses. Try Aura’s digital security tools free for 14 days

      Report fraud to the FTC and local law enforcement

      Reporting your case to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides official proof of innocence and can help you dispute any fraudulent charges or accounts opened in your name. You can fill out an FTC Identity Theft Affidavit at or by calling 1-877-438-4338.

      You can also report cases of fraud to the FTC at

      In some cases, companies may also request a police report before they issue you refunds or close accounts. You can file a complaint with your local law enforcement agency by calling its non-emergency phone number.

      ⛳️ Related: AARP Identity Theft Protection Review: Is It Worth It?

      Contact the company that issued your gift card

      Gift card issuers may be able to help you get some or all of your money back — depending on your situation and the level of detail in your documentation. Reporting your case will also help companies brainstorm ways to keep consumers’ gift card purchases safe moving forward.

      Here’s how to contact a few of the most popular brands that scammers target:

      • Amazon: Call 1-888-280-4331.
      • Google Play: File a report here.
      • eBay: Chat with eBay customer support.
      • Steam: Report the scam to Steam support.
      • Walmart: Contact its customer support team at 1-800-925-6278.
      • Apple (iTunes gift cards): Chat, call, or email from Apple support.

      Can Stolen Gift Cards Be Traced or Refunded?

      Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to trace or get a refund for a gift card that scammers spent. But you can still try contacting each company individually.

      Every organization has its own policies and handles fraud differently, so it’s worth seeing if it can recover at least part of the money you’ve lost.

      When you contact the company, have all of your documentation handy. Their representative will likely want proof that you purchased the card, along with as much evidence as possible to prove that you were not the person who used it.

      How To Protect Yourself Against Gift Card Scammers

      While gift cards make convenient gifts, they’re only useful and safe when used for their original purpose.

      Knowing the signs of gift card scams and taking appropriate action are the best ways to defend against scammers. Take these actionable steps to avoid becoming the victim of gift card scams:

      • Don’t activate gift cards until you’re ready to use them. Also, don’t keep a balance on your gift cards. Scammers can obtain your card numbers and use your gift cards without your knowledge.
      • Register your gift card with the retailer (if possible) and keep the receipt. Doing so will help issuers reclaim your stolen balance.
      • Check gift cards for physical damage or signs of tampering (and don’t ever buy used gift cards). Scammers have likely already noted the gift card numbers and are ready to steal the money upon activation.
      • Learn to spot the warning signs of a phishing email. Be wary of emails with urgent demands, multiple misspellings, and links and attachments — particularly if they come from unfamiliar domains.
      • Hang up on unsolicited phone calls. If the person on the phone tells you they are from a reputable company or agency, hang up and call them back using an official phone number. Keep in mind that scammers can operate over text and email, too. Do not respond to unsolicited texts, and block the numbers. Report suspicious emails as spam.

      Lastly, consider monitoring your identity and credit with an identity theft protection service.

      Aura’s award-winning identity theft protection safeguards your devices from hackers and warns you of potential financial fraud and identity theft threats before you even realize they are happening (up to 250x faster than other services).

      And with Aura’s 24/7 support from dedicated Fraud Resolution Specialists and $1 million per person insurance policy coverage, you can feel confident that your family’s assets stay secured.

      Stay safe from scammers and cybercriminals. Start your free 14-day Aura trial.
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