(NewsUSA) - The warning couldn't be blunter: "Any time someone asks you to solve a problem using gift cards, it's a scam."
So say consumer fraud experts as we head into the holiday season -- an especially popular time for scammers who love tricking people into buying gift cards as step one of their own nefarious schemes. And once they've wormed the PIN number on the back of those cards from their victims, well … as the Federal Trade Commission notes, "they can get quick cash while staying anonymous."
How much cash? More than $429 million since 2018, according to the latest FTC figures. And just to show you how trendy these con artists can be, some are now selling the cards for Bitcoin on online exchanges instead of just, say, auctioning them off the old-fashioned way on normal websites.
So how could anyone fall for a scam like this?
It's all about plausible excuses.
"Scammers prey on people's fear and have just enough personal information to create a sense of panic," says Jenny Grounds, chief marketing officer of Cybercrime Support Network, an organization combating cybercrime for individuals and small businesses and educating consumers about scams through resource platforms like scamspotter.org. "It's that panic that makes their targets feel they need to act immediately without a chance to stop and think."
Here are some common scenarios to be on the alert for:
- The Email from Your "Boss" Scam. Either by hacking into their account or using a spoofed email address, the fraudster asks for your urgent help with something job-related. Maybe it's a surprise office party. Or maybe it's a gift for a special client. Whatever, you're told the supposed vendor needs to immediately be paid in gift cards and that you'll naturally be reimbursed for buying them -- except, of course, you won't be.
- The Government Imposter Scam. "This is the IRS calling," the fraudster begins, using the five words sure to strike terror in anyone's heart. But that's the point. Whether it's the IRS, the Social Security Administration or some other agency, according to a report by the Better Business Bureau, "they claim the consumer has done something illegal, and must either pay a 'fine' with a gift card or move their money temporarily to a 'safe' account by purchasing gift cards."
This may be the one time in your life when you're absolutely encouraged to hang up on an "authority figure."
- The Romance Scam. Reported scams increased by nearly 70 percent last year, according to the FTC, and the pandemic no doubt played a major role. That's because these silver-tongued devils find their prey on online dating sites and social media, and COVID-19 made for the perfect excuse as to why -- as much as they really, really "love" their new-found marks -- they couldn't meet in person. Often impersonating soldiers, they'll tell you the military doesn't pay great, so could you please send gift cards to have their car, say, fixed.
The one possible surprise? It was those aged 20 to 29 -- not the elderly -- that saw the most striking increase in reported romance scams in 2020.
- The Tech Support Scam. Those pop-up messages warning that there's a serious problem on your computer can be alarming. But as Grounds says, "they're asking you to pay for services you don't need to fix a problem that doesn't exist."
ScamSpotter.org's new campaign uses a series of hyperbolic videos to raise awareness about the latest scams just in time for the holidays. Using the platform's "three golden rules," sharing what you've learned with loved ones, and taking their online quiz to test your own street smarts can help keep yourself and your bank account safe.