Scam alert: How to protect yourself from gift card scammers that can hijack your computer

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Friday, May 6, 2022
How to protect yourself from gift card scams
Gift card scams are on the rise in 2022, the Federal Trade Commission said. Some ask for hundreds in Google Play store cards.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- People are getting fooled into sending criminals gift cards. The Federal Trade Commission said the rip-offs are on the rise.

A new survey by AARP found that one in three adults have been targeted in a gift card scam.

"Because I have a background in retail that sounded an alarm," Gail Roberts told the I-Team. She said she stopped her husband from almost sending $400 in gift cards to a scammer. "These are what it looks like Google Play cards he bought four at $400."

It all started when criminals convinced him to give them remote access to his computer. They ended up hijacking it. They told him to buy gift cards and send the gift card numbers in order to regain control of the computer.

"We know that in the past three or four years. Criminals have gotten a lot better at convincing people that they can use a gift card to pay some debt that they make up," said Kathy Stokes, the director of Fraud Prevention Programs with AARP. That organization conducted a concerning survey showing that 73 million Americans have recently experienced fraud involving gift cards. The Federal Trade Commission said $233 million was lost in 2021; a sharp increase from $125 million lost in 2020.

SEE ALSO | What is 'smishing' and how to protect yourself from this new type of scam

"The goal of the scammer, we've learned, is to get that person that they're reaching out to you into a heightened emotional state right away because they know if they can get you there. You have a really hard time accessing your logical thinking," said Stokes.

Some of the other common scams include sending gift card money to get so called lottery winnings. Or, the scammer can pose as a trusted community member who desperately needs gift card money.

"None of us would immediately think that that's fraud. We're just going to try to be helpful. And so we buy those cards and the money's gone," Stokes explained.

Roberts' husband ended up regaining access to his computer by going to a tech expert. She said she wants stores which sell third party gift cards to do more.

"The people that are at the point of sale, need to educate, when someone comes in and asks for hundreds of dollars of the same gift card or even a variety of gift cards, they should ask them is this a gift for someone, you know?" Roberts said.

Even though the money is still on the cards, the store will not take them back, so she will give them away.

"A scammer did not get the money and we're going to make lemonade out of lemons," Roberts said.

AARP and other consumer experts said the easiest way to avoid these elaborate scams is to remember to never pay anyone with a gift card.

AARP's signs to watch for:

FTC's Consumer advice on gift card scams: