Identified Scam:

How Do You Beat Gift Card Scams? Never Pay Using Gift Cards

Beating this scam is simple—don't pay for anything using gift cards and don't give anyone you don't know or trust your gift card information.
Updated 7 July 2021
How Do You Beat Gift Card Scams? Never Pay Using Gift Cards
Identified Scam:
Key Finding

Scammers impersonate legitimate brands, buyers, and agencies requesting payment in the form of gift cards. 

Key Risk

The money you paid for the gift cards will be gone, as will the balance on the gift cards. 

Sections on this page
  1. What Are Gift Card Scams?
  2. How to Beat and Avoid Gift Card Scams
  3. Examples of Gift Card Scams
  4. What To Do if You've Fallen for a Gift Card Scam
  5. Frequently Asked Questions

Gift card scams are common, but luckily they're easy to beat. All you need to remember is to never buy gift cards as a way to pay for something. A request for gift cards instead of a legitimate payment method is a key sign of a scam.

What Are Gift Card Scams?

Gift cards are a handy, modern way of giving money instead of cash to family or friends, but they also have a dark side. They are commonly used to scam unsuspecting victims out of money. All varieties of gift cards have been used for this type of scam, and scammers may use different tactics each time to elude detection. However, you can protect yourself. First, let's look at how gift card scams works.

You're Asked to Pay With a Gift Card

Several versions of the gift card scam exist, but this step is common among all of them. A scammer will ask you to use a gift card to pay for a product, service, or donation. The scammer may contact you through any medium—email, phone, social media—and may impersonate a seller or even a well-known brand.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, gift card scammers sent emails and text messages to victims claiming to be the victim's boss, professor, pastor, or another individual they respect and asked for gift cards to help with COVID-19 treatments.

Some common versions of the gift card scam include scammers:

  • Saying they will offer you a job where you can work from home, have flexible hours, and make a lot of money, but you first need to pay a fee via gift card.
  • Setting up websites or social media pages for fake charities that accept donations via gift cards.
  • Impersonating government officials and demanding payment of a fine using gift cards.
  • Claiming you won a sweepstake but need to pay a service fee to get your prize.
  • Impersonating tech support from Apple, saying that something is wrong with your computer and will fix it for a fee.
  • Saying they are from a utility company and threaten to shut off your service unless you pay them in gift cards.
  • Meeting you on a dating site/app and asking for gift cards so they can meet you in person.
Example Scammer Phone Call

Hi, this is the IRS. Our records show you owe a balance of $280 for your tax return. You must pay this immediately to avoid further issues, including a suspension of your Social Security number. 

No worries, you can pay right now via Walmart gift cards. All you need to do is buy the cards and call us back to provide the gift card numbers, then your account will be settled. 

You're Asked to Act Immediately

The scammers don't want to give you time to think about what you are doing. They want to cloud your mind by creating a sense of urgency or fear. If they claim you are helping with an emergency, then the situation will probably get much worse soon if you don't help right away. If you are interested in a product they are selling, they'll say it will sell out if you don't act immediately.

You're Told To Buy a Specific Type of Gift Card

The scammer will usually tell you which type of gift card to buy because they already know how they will use the card and what they will purchase. Some common gift cards that scammers will ask you to buy include those from:

The scammer may ask you to buy several cards and tell you to go to multiple stores so that cashiers won't be suspicious. If they contacted you by phone, they might even ask you to stay on the phone while you are in these stores buying the gift cards.

The Scammer Asks You for the Gift Card Number and PIN

The gift card number and PIN are all a scammer needs to use the balance. The physical card itself is actually worthless to the scammer because they will be making their purchases online.

You're Out the Money You Put on the Gift Card

Once the scammer has the card numbers and PINs, they will use them quickly, so you won’t have time to use them yourself. If you thought you were purchasing something, you will never receive the item. If you thought you donated to a good cause, the charity will never receive the money you spent.

Whatever version of the scam, you’ll be out of your money.

How to Beat and Avoid Gift Card Scams

The primary way to beat this type of scam is to never pay for items, fees, bills, donations, or anything of the like using gift cards. A request for payment in the form of gift cards is almost always a scam. Use gift cards as gifts and not payment.

Scammers commonly impersonate government representatives to scare you into making a payment. No government agency (including the IRS or Social Security Administration) will ever ask for payment using gift cards. 

Red Flags of Gift Card Scams

  • A request for payment via gift card.
  • Grammatical errors and misspellings in the message or email you received.
  • A pushy seller or representative, using threats and scare tactics.
  • Messages or emails from an acquaintance that seems strange (their account may have been hacked).

Gift cards can only be used at the stores they were made for. They are not legal tender. No legitimate business, government agency, charity, or person will ask for payment using a gift card. If you keep that in mind, you will be safe from gift card scams.

Examples of Gift Card Scams

Gift card scammers will contact you through any medium, including phone calls, emails, texts, online chat, and social networks. The common denominator is that they will ask you to buy gift cards.

Scammers can send emails pretending to be someone you know and trust, so you don’t question the request.

Example email from gift card scammer.
Even if a message or email comes from someone you know, if they ask for payment for something via gift cards, it's a red flag that it's actually a scammer you're talking to. (Source: NYU IT)

Example gift card scam texts.
You should always question why someone is asking for gift cards, even if it's someone you know. Try giving them a call to confirm it's actually them you're talking to and not a scammer.

What To Do if You've Fallen for a Gift Card Scam

Once you fall victim to a gift card scam, you’ll be out of the money you paid for the gift cards. There’s, unfortunately, no way to get this money back. Scammers use gift cards because the money is hard to trace, and they can use them immediately online.

The good news is, that’s the only money they’ll be able to access. Unlike other scams, your bank accounts and credit cards won’t be compromised, and the scam will end there.

Report the Scam to the Authorities

Although you can't recoup the money you lost, you can still report the scam to the authorities and to the retailer that sold the gift card. Reporting the fraud will help:

  • Educate other people and hopefully help them avoid falling victim to it
  • The authorities put a stop to scammers

Report the Incident to the Gift Card Issuer

You should immediately report the incident to the company you bought the gift cards from. Here are the business contact details for the issuers of some common gift cards used in scams:

You should also find a customer support number or link on the back of the gift card.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do gift card scams work?

In gift card scams, scammers contact you asking for money or payment for something in the form of a gift card. They can impersonate anyone from a relative of yours to the IRS. Once you buy the gift card and give them the card number and PIN, they will disappear, immediately using the card's balance. You're left without your money. 

How do I avoid gift card scams?

The golden rule to beating gift card scams is never to pay anyone using gift cards. Even if the scammer impersonates a relative of yours, you should ask yourself why your relative would prefer gift cards over cash. Someone asking for gift cards instead of real money is a tell-tale sign of a scam.

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