Guest blog: Know the Signs of Gift Card Scams
December 28, 2022
Scams have been around for as long as we can remember. People have been known to commit fraud against one another for thousands of years. Some say the first scam was between two Greek sea merchants in 300 BC.
Why do people keep getting swindled? Well, scammers can be clever in the ways that they take advantage of others. Also, it is often difficult for law enforcement to catch scammers because it is a crime that is done in disguise and from an untraceable distance. Therefore, we must be aware of their ways so we can keep from becoming victims.
Scams evolve and change over time to prey on our most vulnerable community members. One of the more common schemes involves the victim purchasing and conveying gift card information to a scammer over the phone. What is a gift card scam? This is when an unknown caller will tell you a story with urgency and ask you to purchase a gift card in a set amount or amounts to fix some problem, they are telling you about. Often the caller will tell you which gift cards to buy or ask which stores are closest to you. They may even insist they stay on the phone with you while you drive to and/or enter the store. In some cases, the caller may even feed you a false story to tell the store clerks as to why you’re buying the gift cards. Once the gift cards are purchased, they will ask you to give them the gift card number and/or pin number … and then your money is gone!
Know the signs; things a scammer will say:
- Caller claims to be from the government, such as IRS or Social Security, trying to collect a debt, fine, or to avoid a warrant for your arrest
- Caller claims to be from tech support and says there is something wrong with your computer
- Caller tries to convince you money was accidentally placed into your bank account, but the excess can be returned through gift cards
- Online romance scam where a person you’ve never met tells you they need you to send money. Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person!
- Caller pretends to be a family member or friend, insists there’s an emergency and they need money immediately, and asks you not to tell anyone
- Caller says you’ve won a prize but must pay fees with gift cards
- Caller claims to be from a utility company, a major retailer, or your financial institution about an unauthorized purchase. These callers will threaten adverse consequences should you not comply with their requests.
It is difficult to track down scammers because they typically operate overseas. Scammers typically employ untraceable phones and false identities, making their identification very difficult. The money stolen is usually transferred overseas making it difficult—if not impossible—to recover. Scammers constantly refresh the nature of the scams, making them difficult to consistently spot. As detection has improved, so have the methods used by scammers.
There are many different agencies involved in our efforts to stop and prosecute scammers. On the federal government level, Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center are responsible for investigating cyber and postal fraud. On a local level, law enforcement provides information to the public on those scams that are presently circulating within our community, and these agencies also participate in “scam stopper” presentations to help spread awareness. The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office publishes a scam alert notice on our website, describing some of the more common scams we are encountering, at https://rivcoda.org/resources/scam-alert. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department publishes similar information at: https://ca-riversidesheriff-hidden.civicplus.com/368/Fraud-Schemes.
When a scammer is caught, there are a myriad of charges that might apply: petty theft (if the loss is under $950), grand theft (for losses at or more than $950), money laundering, forgery, identify theft, and unauthorized access to credit cards. Depending on the perpetrator’s background and the amount of the financial loss, a felony charge might be appropriate. Restitution is always ordered in cases resulting in a plea or conviction. Under Penal Code section 186.11(a)(1), if the loss is more than $100,000, a defendant can be sentenced to state prison for an additional year. If the loss is more than $500,000, an additional two, three, or four years in state prison can be imposed. In some cases, there are statutory mechanisms we can employ to seize a defendant’s assets for the payment of restitution.
The best way to prevent victimization is by educating the public—particularly the elderly—on the nature of these scams. This is precisely why the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office conducts community outreach through local “scam stopper” presentations. It is vitally important that our community be educated about the many scams that now exist. Right now, the most common scams involve gift cards, false IRS collections, jury duty arrest warrants, false utility company or financial institution billings, and scams involving online romance.
There are two “golden rules” when it comes to avoiding scams: (1) Don’t talk to strangers; and (2) If it sounds too good to be true, it is. People should never give money to a stranger. Moreover, no legitimate government agency or business will ask for your banking information, Social Security card number, or similar information. Any request or demand to make a payment by means of a gift card is a red flag, as are tactics suggesting that a dire consequence will occur if a payment isn’t made immediately. If you have reason to think that a contact is legitimate, you should err towards independently and directly contacting the agency or business, to ensure that you reach a legitimate representative. Note also that if you fall victim to a scammer, you are likely to continue to be contacted by more scammers.
Unfortunately, our elderly community members are more likely to fall victim to these scams. This is true for a variety of reasons, including diminishing mental capacity, a generational sense of trust, or feelings of loneliness. If you suspect someone over the age of 60 is being victimized, it is important to report that concern to Adult Protective Services (APS) at (800) 491-7123.
Sometimes a victim may be too embarrassed to report an incident. Crime victims should always report such crimes to law enforcement. Moreover, such reports help law enforcement identify emergent scams, and a victim’s account might also serve as a valuable training lesson for future targets. If you find yourself the victim of a financial scam, immediately cease communications with the scammer, notify your banking institution (if applicable), and file a police report. You should also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (https://www.ic3.gov/) and on the FTC website (https://www.ftc.gov/).
Our guest blog article author, Maureen DuMouchel, has been a Riverside County Deputy District Attorney for 15 years. The last five years, Maureen has been assigned to the Special Prosecutions Region handling elder abuse cases, including those involving financial crimes.