A recent survey by AARP found that 34 percent of Americans say they or someone they know has been targeted by criminals who try to trick them into paying a bogus debt with a gift card.
The survey of just over 2,000 American adults also found that 24 percent of the people surveyed bought gift cards in response to the request.
As we look to protect customers (and friends and family), it’s importance to recognize that these victims are falling prey to scams and not hacks. In other words, the most secure packaging and computer systems in the world cannot prevent someone from buying a gift card and then giving the numbers over the phone to criminals.
The survey also asked “[h]ow strongly do you agree or disagree that lawmakers need to do more to protect consumers from fraud and scams?” Not surprisingly 89 percent said they agreed with this statement. But laws already exist to prosecute criminals, and there are no laws Congress and state legislators can pass and implement that will totally prevent people from being tricked or misled.
Ultimately, we all need to be part of the solution to preventing these crimes. Laws and regulations are already in place to prosecute criminals, and law enforcement has developed tools like the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center to improve reporting and investigations.
On the industry side, gift card issuers and distributors have built in fraud detection tools and created educational materials for shoppers. For instance, systems can spot unusual amounts of gift card loads or high numbers of activations. At that point they can prompt clerks to ask why the cards are being purchased, put a hold on the funds, or take other corrective action.
Of the people who reported that they bought gift cards as part of a scam, 25 percent said they were warned about the possibility of scams at the time of purchase. Clerks can only do this when the purchase seems unusual. Some criminals have gotten wise to this defense and warn their victims to purchase small amounts from multiple stores so that nothing tips off a clerk or store manager.
This brings us to the last lines of defense: education and social awareness. We need to educate git card buyers about the risks of scams. AARP did this in an article describing the most common types of scams, and industry groups like the IPA and Retail Gift Card Association have also provided information for consumers to avoid scams. The IPA also created an investigation for local law enforcement to make it easier for them to aid victims of card fraud of all types.
Stores will often post warnings at their gift card malls that gift cards cannot be used for things like utility bill payments. Clerks have been trained to look for unusual purchases by customers.
Ultimately, we need to talk with our friends and family members about the proper uses of gift cards. Let them know they should call us first if someone ever tells them we are in jail or that they need to pay a bill and should buy a gift card. We need to make people comfortable about asking questions and not shame those who get tricked.
Gift cards have topped the holiday wish lists of consumers for the past 15 years, according to the National Retail Federation. They are popular because they bring recipients a lot of happiness and choice. By working together to protect the average American, law enforcement, industry, and friends and family can make sure gift cards remain a source of joy.
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