WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Gift cards are a multi-billion dollar industry. They make great gifts for loved ones, but they can also be an avenue for scammers to steal your money.

The Better Business Bureau says Americans have lost hundreds of millions of dollars through gift card scams. We found one Kansas woman who learned this the hard way.

It started as a day of searching through emails, but it turned into one Linda Wescott wishes she could take back.

“It was just easy to talk me into believing them,” Wescott said.

She opened her email to find what appeared to be a message from Amazon, warning her about a fraud alert, about someone apparently trying to buy a television and an Xbox. The charges totaled more than $6,000.

She called the phone number to clear her name.

“To take it off, I needed to buy gift cards and that they would reimburse me for the gift cards,” Wescott said.

So she did just that. She drove from her house in the small town of Auburn to Topeka. She bought various gift cards at department stores, thinking she would get her money back and clear her name. Unfortunately, she spent $4,000 before she realized she was the victim of a scam.

“I was already flustered to begin with since I’m a caretaker for my husband,” Wescott said. “I was having problems with him in the morning, and when this happened, and then I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to begin with to even think about this might be a scam.”

She reported the crime to the BBB and the Federal Trade Commission. Unfortunately, she found out when you use gift cards as a form of payment, it’s like cash.

“Once you load funds onto those gift cards, and you’ve divulged that 18-digit card number
to that scammer, they wipe out those funds immediately, and there is no recourse,” said Denise Groene, BBB of Kansas.

The BBB data shows this scam is growing. In fact, this reported crime tripled between 2017 and 2020. Last year alone, the median average for lost money per person was $700.

The BBB found that people 65 and older are more likely to lose money than younger people in this scam.

Bill Ramsey, with Soteria Technology Solutions, says there are ways to protect yourself from scams.

He recommends you set up two-factor authentication with your cell phone for signing into any of your accounts. It gives you an extra layer of protection if hackers get a hold of your passwords. But he says you still have to watch out for more red flags.

“If someone is asking you for money across the internet, and you did not initiate that, you really need to think twice about that, or they’re trying to get information out of you,” Ramsey said.

Wescott says she would handle it differently if she had the chance.

“Upset with myself for not being more vigilant, realizing I was being scammed, and when I did think I was being scammed, I should’ve shut it off,” she said.

This is why she is telling her story, hoping you will listen and not get sucked into this scam.

Watch out for these red flags:

(Source BBB)

  • Government agencies requesting payment. No government agency requests money through gift cards. 
  • Statements that buying gift cards is a safe way to make a payment. Providing the numbers for a gift card is like sending cash, and the money is rarely recoverable. Gift card payment requests are a big red flag for a scam.
  • Keep the receipt when buying a gift card. Keep the physical card as well. These may help prove that the card was paid for and activated if problems arise later.
  • Inspect the card carefully before buying it to be sure it has not been tampered with. Some scammers open the card to get the numbers on the back so that they can take the money when the card is later activated.

Who to contact if you are a gift card scam victim:

(Source BBB)

  • Victims should immediately notify the issuer of the card as soon as they realize they bought gift cards and provided the numbers to scammers or have purchased gift cards with no balance on them. There is typically a customer service number on the back of the card.
  • Better Business Bureau – file a complaint with your local BBB if you lost money or report a scam online at BBB.org/scamtracker.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – file a complaint online at reportfraud.ftc.gov or call 877-FTC-Help.
  • Internet Crime Complaint enter (IC3) – file a complaint online at ic3.gov/complaint.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Agency – file a complaint online at consumerfinance.gov/complaint or call (855) 411-2372