Here’s Another Reason To Avoid Giving Gift Cards

By this point, we’ve probably all given or received gift cards during the holidays. But most consumers don’t know how easy it is for scammers to steal value from these cards, and what a pain in the butt in can be to get that money back.

See, around this time of year, scam artists are going around and getting peeks at the numbers on cards available for sale at stores. They record these numbers, and then a few months from now they’ll go online or call up the 800 numbers for these cards to see if they have been activated and if they have been used.

An activated but unused card is an indicator that the cardholder isn’t rushing to use that gift card and probably won’t notice right away that it’s worthless. So the scammer will use the card number online — and sometimes in stores — to make purchases. It’s not until the actual cardholder eventually gets around to using the card (which can sometimes be months or years) that they realize the money is gone, gone, gone.

CBS San Francisco’s ConsumerWatch has the story of a man who received a Macy’s gift card but didn’t use it for almost two years. When he did, the cashier told him he had a zero balance; not because the card has any those monthly maintenance fees that chisel away at its value over time, but because someone had used the number to make a purchase at a store he’d never been to.

So now the customer is in the position of having to provide evidence that they didn’t make the alleged purchases. Macy’s says it will honor cards that appear to have been used fraudulently, but we have no idea how easy that might be to prove.

And Macy’s is certainly not alone in being vulnerable to this kind of scam. Best Buy and other retailers have had to deal with customers holding worthless cards that they never used.

The best way to deal with this is to avoid buying gift cards altogether. Consumer Reports’ annual holiday poll found that 60% of people would rather receive cash than gift cards, so that check or wad of bills in an envelope may be more appreciated than the gift card that will sit in a draw gathering dust.

But if you do buy gift cards, check first to see if the packaging has been tampered with. That is a big red flag that someone may have written down the card’s number for future scamming. And it seems like most of these compromised cards happen to cards sold through third parties, so buying the card directly from the actual store might be a safer bet.

Because even though the cardholder stands a decent chance of getting the scammed money put back on the card, that is a hassle that you’ll never have to deal with if someone just gives cash.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.