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In honor of my Caught Dead in Wyoming mystery series, my assistant Kay Coyte is writing for my newsletter and blog a series of consumer tips inspired by TV reporter Elizabeth Danniher.
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The preceding Consumer Tip concerned securing your hotel and airline rewards programs. This time, we have some advice and warnings about gift cards. These convenient presents ballooned to a $160 billion market in the U.S. by 2018 that continues to grow. But beware! The proliferation of cards, often on displays in busy supermarkets or big-box stores, makes them the ideal vehicle for scammers. What you get in convenience with a gift card purchase, you might lose if you buy a tampered-with card: it’s very hard to reverse the purchases or get a refund.

Previous Consumer Tips have reported about con artists using gift cards in IRS threat or romance scams or sophisticated shakedowns such as jury duty con that entangled Deputy Alvaro in Back Story. This column deals with using gift cards as gifts. Consumer watchdog sites from AARP to Money magazine to the Federal Trade Commission have tips on safe shopping for gift cards. First, be vigilant at the store. Inspect the cards before you buy to make sure all its protective stickers are in place. Report the card to the store if anything looks scratched off or damaged, or if the cardboard packaging has been bent or torn. If the store sells gift cards behind a counter, start there.

AARP, citing the Better Business Bureau (BBB), also suggests that you don’t buy the top gift card on a rack. Scammers usually leave doctored cards there to make a quick exit. If the retailer offers an option to register the card, do it. That makes it easier to track and quickly report any misuse. And save the receipt, which can be helpful if you run into problems with the card.

USAToday also reported on the risk of buying cards from gift card resellers. (Yep, some of those gift cards you carefully picked out for grandkids or work pals end up getting sold for cash or traded for a different card.) A tech security expert interviewed in the article said the downside is “it’s very difficult to tell if the gift cards you buy from those sites at a discounted rate are legitimately sold or if they’ve been stolen by a scammer and are being sold for a profit. … The consumer who was innocent of any wrongdoing [or the giftee!] can be the one left holding the worthless gift card.”

The Retail Gift Card Association recommends purchasing cards “from trusted sources and known brands, especially when buying online.” The RGCA also has an informative tips video on YouTube.

Sometimes, as noted in this November post on, there’s not much you can do. Hackers use a GiftGhostBot to run through a store’s online gift card balance check system to match up a valid gift card number with an activated balance. When found, hackers use the gift card themselves or sell it on the “dark web.” To ward off this scam, use gift cards soon after you receive them and check unused gift card balances often.

You can report a gift card scam to the FTC, which also has a list of contacts for contacting retailers such as Amazon and iTunes directly with gift card complaints.

Next month: Don’t do me any favors