'Beautiful for bad guys': This is why gift cards are a payment method of choice for scammers
Gift card scams have skyrocketed over the past three years, and a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds the cards have become the currency of choice for criminals because according to some experts, they are more anonymous than cryptocurrency.
John and Claire Malecky lost their life savings to a gift card scam. The fraudsters told John Malecky that his financial information had been compromised and he needed to transfer money to a new bank account using gift card codes. For days, he traveled to stores like Target, Best Buy and Walgreens, buying as many cards as the stores would sell. By the time he got wise to the scam, he had lost $104,700.
“They were telling me I was going to be fully reimbursed when the case was over,” Malecky recalls.
His wife eventually became suspicious because the scammers kept her husband on the phone constantly. “I would say to him, ‘Hang up, I want to speak to you,’” she says, “because something wasn’t sitting right with me.”
The Maleckys may be an extreme case but they’re not alone. The Federal Trade Commission says that in the past three years, losses from gift card scams have more than tripled to $344.6 million.
Cybersecurity expert and author Scott Schober says the cards provide “total anonymity and that's beautiful for bad guys.” He says scammers frequently trade the stolen cards for another anonymous currency, Bitcoin.
“There’s companies that will take that gift card and they will give you cash or they'll give you cryptocurrency,” he says. “You can go down the chain and stay anonymous. How is anybody going to chase you down?”
The cryptocurrency exchange, Paxful lets customers buy Bitcoin with gift cards. According to a report by the security company Agari, the site has become “a bazaar for west African scam artists selling stolen gift cards,” and “the entire process, from receipt of the first gift card to transferring cash into a bank account, (can take) less than two-and-a-half hours.”
Schober says he can’t think of a good reason for a cryptocurrency exchange to allow payment via gift card, because “it's so tempting for a cybercriminal to use.”
“Paxful has many security measures in place…to keep our users safe and prevent people from using the platform for criminal activity,” according to spokesperson Jo White.
Most retailers put a limit on the amount of gift card sales it will make, but those didn’t help John Malecky. While Walgreens spokesman Scott Goldberg says, “team members are advised to politely decline transactions larger than $750,” the scammers easily evaded that limit by sending Malecky to different Walgreens stores. Receipts show, in three days, Walgreens sold him $8,000, $10,000 and nearly $11,000 worth of cards.
New Jersey Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson, a member of the Consumer Affairs Committee, says Kane In Your Corner’s investigation is proof retail workers need more training. She’s calling on her colleagues in the state senate to pass the “Stop the Fraud” Act. Others say the whole system needs an overhaul.
“There should be an ID associated so that the purchaser provides ID and then the person who's going to redeem it provides ID,” says elder fraud advocate Christina McGuire.
In the meantime, advocates warn that consumers remember one simple tip: anytime someone asks you to make a payment by gift card, it is automatically a scam. The Maleckys hope by telling their story, they can help others avoid making the same mistake they did.