With the holidays upon us, and the final few days of Christmas shopping at hand, I know there will be a lot of you picking up those last-minute gifts. Gift cards make great (and easy!) last-minute gifts, and going that route can help you get your shopping done quickly! Load some money on those little cards and you’re done! I didn’t realize until recently, however, that there is a lot of gift card scamming going on, so you want to be careful. Thieves can drain the hard-earned money you paid for those cards and leave the recipient with no gift at all, and they don’t even have to have the actual card in hand to do it. Isn’t that stinky?
There are several ways crooks can get hold of your gift card money. You have probably heard of thieves going around checking people’s mailboxes for gift cards–they can feel the envelopes and tell if there is a card in there, and if they find one, they take it. But there are other, even more sneaky ways. Get this: evidently, they can go through the gift cards on the racks at the store, write down the numbers for the cards, scratch off the strips on the back to get the security codes, and then replace the strips with new ones. Apparently replacement strips are easily available online–who knew?! Then, they sign up for an alert for each card so that when someone loads money onto a card, they are notified immediately and can drain the card, lickety-split. There are also hackers that can access card information through the websites where card holders can check their gift card balances. Some of these hackers use bots that try large numbers of potential card numbers and PIN numbers to see if they can find a card with a balance, and then steal the money from the card. Others get information directly off people’s personal computers by hacking through their security software and accessing their personal information. It’s pretty easy money for some of these guys.
Whether you’re a gift card giver, or a recipient, there are some things to do that can protect your gift cards from being stolen or scammed:
- Try not to let your mail sit in the mailbox for long. I know the mail comes to each of our houses at various different times, and usually while we are at work, but the quicker you can get the mail from your box, the less chance there is for someone to come along and fiddle through it, looking to steal from you. If you’re sending someone a gift card through the mail, you might even let them know when you’re sending it so they can know to look for it in the mail. Or if you can just hand deliver it, that’s even better.
- Buy gift cards online. Thieves can’t access the information for cards purchased online. It’s definitely best to buy online if you’re purchasing a card with a high value. You want to secure your computer too–always use strong passwords and be sure that your computer has the most up-to-date security software.
- Don’t buy gift cards off the racks at a retail store. Those are just not safe anymore since the card numbers and codes are too easy to steal. Get the card directly from the merchant, store, or restaurant itself, and if they have cards out on a rack, ask to get a card from behind the register, or look for one that is in some kind of tamper-resistant packaging.
- If you can, change the PIN number on the card as soon as you get it. You can do this either as the giver or receiver–if you are the giver, just let the recipient know the new PIN.
- Use the card right away. Letting it sit unused just gives the crooks more time to potentially take it from you. Don’t let it burn a hole in your pocket 😉
So what happens if your card gets drained? You should definitely call the company that issued the card and report the stolen funds. Some companies have software that can detect the difference between fraudulent and honest activity on a card, and will reimburse the money. Years ago, I tried to use a brand new gift card that I got for Christmas, and it came up without a balance. It may have been a simple error made when it was loaded with the amount, but either way, the store manager allowed me to use it. So, it never hurts to ask!
Hope this information helps as you are gift carding this year! It’s a shame we have to be so careful about everything, but at least we have some options for protecting ourselves, right? Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!