Holiday Gift Cards – Scams Waiting to Happen!


Oh, dear! Black Friday hits tomorrow – and Cyber Monday is coming in just two weeks! Since half of your neighbors started on their holiday shopping as early as October, you may already be behind the curve. But take a deep breath, and read through this Advisory. It’s all about being prepared for some shopping solutions, plus emergencies you want to avoid – all related to holiday gift cards.

Full disclosure: I am NOT an expert on scams. In researching this article I found myself going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. Still, I’m confident that what’s here will get you properly alerted. You may want to dig deeper!

Let’s start with a look at the popularity of Gift Cards

According to the Conference Board, U.S. consumers plan to spend slightly more on gifts this year than they did in 2022: $654 this year, up from $613 last year. More to the point for this Advisory, 67% of holiday gift spending will be on gift cards!

They’re just so convenient! So easy to wrap! Even getting two of the same card isn’t a tragedy!

But as you might imagine, the more money involved, the more scammers and hackers are attracted. Be prepared!

Here are some popular gift card scams to watch for:  

  • Urgent threat!”

    You get a phone call (or emails from an unknown “official” (IRS, gas company, sheriff’s dept. etc.) saying your payment is overdue. Or the contact is from someone you know, asking for your help. To solve the problem, you are told to run to the store, buy a gift card and then give them the numbers off the back of the card. They typically ask for a specific card, like from Target, Google Play, Apple, or Walmart. If you get that call or that email, JUST HANG UP. (If it truly sounded like a family member, check to be sure it was fake!)
  • “Empty card!”

    As a crossing guard, I get a handful of gift cards every Christmas from “my” kids. I’ve been lucky – every card from the kids has been good! But not so every card we’ve collected from other sources. A couple of times, when we’ve activated new cards, we discover that after our first purchase the rest of the money seems to have disappeared. Or, the card reads “ZERO balance” the very first time we try to use it! 

    What has happened? Scammers have copied down or used a magstripe reader to capture the bar codes of gift cards on the display case. They track these numbers by calling customer service. When a balance has been loaded onto the card, scammers use the card number to make purchases online. Much of this is done automatically via BOTS – and it can happen so fast you don’t even have time to put your newly activated card to use!

  • Shifty Cashier.”

    This happens most frequently in busy stores, when lines are long and people are in a hurry. You are ready to pay for your purchase with a new or a partially-used gift card. You hand the card to the cashier, who turns to process the transaction – and then hands back a card that looks the same but has already been emptied!
  • “Fake Card Activation Site.”

    I’ll bet that by now you have come across fake emails leading to fake websites purporting to be from online companies you do business with. This is just another variation on that theme. You get a gift card. It tells you to head to a website to activate the card. The scammers create websites that look like the real thing but have just a slightly different web address. (Maybe a hyphen in there? Or an extra letter?)

    You arrive at the site, enter the card number to be activated . . . and the scammer turns around and immediately uses the numbers to activate the card at the official site. Your money has disappeared.
  • For sure, it’s not from the local big box store or gas station or drugstore, where row upon row of different cards are displayed. As we have described above, these displays are child’s play for scammers. If you do want to buy physical cards, consider getting them directly from your favorite retailer’s own shop. (Check several of the cards. Make sure they all have different bar codes. Is the packaging intact, with no tampering? Is the PIN completely hidden?)
  • It may be safer yet to purchase gift cards through Amazon. (Amazon sells its own cards, also cards for Starbucks, Kohls, etc.) Whatever, you should avoid websites that sell just cards or that sell “discounted cards.” (Keep reading to find out why.)
  • Take the time to read the fine print. Some cards charge an activation fee.  (Most notably, VISA) That is, you buy a $30 card but when you pay for it, the bill comes to a few dollars more than $30. You buy a “discounted card” worth $25 — but only get $15 worth after a purchase fee. Planning to give cards to elderly grandparents? If they don’t use the card right away (say, within the first 12 months), they may discover that a monthly fee starts eating away on the balance for “inactivity!” Different cards may apply different policies. Know your cards!
  • Document your cards.

    Have you just bought a card? Keep a copy of the card and the store receipt – take a picture with your phone!  The numbers and receipt will help you track orders or if you want to file a loss or a fraud report.
  • Buying online?

    Use the websites of companies you know, and verify that you’re on the “real” site and not on a “fake” site!  (Look for https:// in the URL. Check for contact information, return policies, etc.)
  • Watch your account balances.

    Check bank and credit card activity frequently for any unknown or unauthorized transactions. Report to your bank immediately.

Here’s the kicker. If you’ve been scammed or your card has been stolen, the chances of you getting any money back are . . . slim to none. I think you’ll see, prominently displayed wherever cards are for sale, a policy that reads something like this (probably much more nicely worded, of course):

“No refunds on any gift cards for any reason.”

Now, if you buy for a reputable company, AND you have proof of the purchase, you MAY be able to get a refund for lost money. Report to the merchant immediately with all details. If a scam is involved, you can also notify the local police. And finally, you may also want to notify the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which tracks scams and frauds.

Oh, I discovered one small positive. ln a few states, like in California, if the value of your card drops below $10, you can trade it in to the retailer for cash.

The point of it all? We consider holiday shopping the same as everything else at Emergency Plan Guide. The more you know, the safer and more secure you — and the rest of us — will be!

Your Emergency Plan Guide team

P.S. After all this research, I must admit that I, too, really like gift cards as presents! And it looks to me as though the very best place to purchase is directly online, through Amazon (where we are affiliates, as you know). Amazon offers a couple of options:

  • Go to the gift cards page on Amazon and pick out an eCard from a number of styles and from a number of vendors. Fill in the recipient’s email, set a delivery date, and voila, your gift is on its way. Here’s a link to that full selection page.
  • You can also get Amazon gift cards packaged in neat, black boxes with orange accents or bow. Very stylish. Here’s a link to the boxed cards page.

Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of each sales page to read all the “terms and conditions!”

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