Vera Oberg of Germantown, Maryland, lost her life savings to a gift card scam.
Oberg is a registered nurse with a degree in healthcare administration and said she can’t believe she fell for this scam. But unfortunately, even the savviest of consumers are no match for these thieves.
The scammer claimed he was an FBI agent and told her someone was using her identity to rob banks and deal drugs. The fake FBI agent convinced Oberg that her financial accounts could be compromised so she needed to withdraw all of her cash and buy gift cards. She was told she’d get the money back when the investigation was over.
Over a four-day period, Oberg bought a total of $32,000 in gift cards from various major retailers and read the card numbers to the scammer over the phone. She said only two cashiers asked her why she was spending so much money on gift cards. And even when she bought $8,000 worth of cards at one retailer, the cashier said nothing.
News4 visited seven major retailers and saw that all had signs warning about scams on their gift card displays, although some were more obvious than others. Those same retailers said they train their employees to identify red flags to spot potential fraud victims.
But when News4 sent a producer undercover to see whether they would question him if he bought $1,000 in gift cards, only three retailers out of seven did.
Walmart, Target, Safeway and CVS cashiers did not question the producer. They scanned the gift cards, but when it was time to pay, he told them his wallet was in the car and left.
CVS told us that if our producer had continued with the transaction, the card reader would have prompted him to answer questions about his gift card purchase. Walmart said the cashier followed the necessary protocols in this case.
Target and Safeway didn’t want to share any details about how they train their employees to spot potential gift card scams, because criminals could use that to their advantage.
At Giant, Walgreens and Best Buy the producer was not only asked why he was buying the cards, but the cashiers also wanted to make sure he wasn’t being pressured.
“Just do me a favor sir, if you have received any phone call or an email from anyone asking you for gift cards, it’s a scam; be careful,” said a Best Buy employee.
Gift cards have topped the list of reported fraud payments every year since 2018. The FBI says they’re an easy way for scammers to monetize their scheme without having to deal with cash.
“So if they have those gift cards, they can then utilize that same scratched-off information to make a purchase online,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Patrick Wyman said. “From that purchase online they’ll then have some other method to monetize whatever merchandise it was.”
Or they may take the gift card number and sell it online at a slightly lower value.
If you pay a scammer with a gift card, you may be able to get your money back, but you have to act fast.
- Contact the company that issued the card immediately.
- Tell the retailer the card was used in a scam.
- Ask if the money is still on the card and can they issue a refund.
- Keep your receipt as proof of how much you spent.
Be aware that some retailers will not return money even if the gift card hasn’t been used.