Pay attention to scams
The first gift card was introduced by a large department store chain in 1994. The idea was an instant hit. Finally, a way to simplify gift giving and holiday shopping.
Businesses fell in love with gift cards due their high profitability. Many corporations reap millions from unused balances — around 6 percent of gift cards are never redeemed at all. Easy money.
Like anything else in our digital age, scammers appreciated gift cards as an easy way to steal money. Using a endless variety of methods, victims are scared or enticed to buy gift cards, and then told to read back card numbers. Once a gift card number and personal identification code (PIN) is given to the scammer, the funds are electronically stolen. Much as cash, once you’ve given away the gift card numbers, the money is usually gone forever.
The Federal Trade Commission stresses that gift cards are for gifts, not for payments. If you are contacted by anyone who asks you to pay anything with a gift card, you are being scammed.
Fraudsters have concocted an endless variety of schemes using gift cards to bilk unsuspecting older adults. Among them:
• The caller says he is from the government.
Scammers pose as officials from the courts, a law enforcement agency or a federal agency like the IRS, the Social Security Administration, Medicare… the list goes forever. You’ll be told you need to pay a fee or fine with a gift card.
Remember that the government NEVER CALLS. And no official is EVER going to ask you to send money with a gift card.
• The caller says they are from “tech support.”
The scammer says they are from well-known tech company like Apple or Microsoft. Something is wrong with your computer or smart phone. You need to pay for service or virus protection by buying a gift card.
Hang up. If your computer screen is going bonkers with a bunch of zany images, hold down the power button for 10 seconds to turn your computer off. Then restart and continue your day.
• The caller says they are a family member in an emergency.
These are lucrative scams that victimize thousands of older adults every day. A caller claims to be a family member in trouble, probably in jail, and asks you to send money for bail or fines with a gift card.
The biggest red flag is when they ask you to buy a gift card.
HANG UP AT ONCE, don’t answer the phone again, and call your actual family member to make sure everything is OK.
• The caller says you have won a prize.
But before you can claim your prize, you need to pay taxes and fees with a gift card.
You haven’t won anything. Disregard anyone calling to say you’ve won anything, especially a foreign lottery.
• If you’ve been victimized in a gift card scam, time is of the essence. Drop everything and contact the card issuer to report the scam.
If your scammer is dawdling, there is a slight chance you might cancel the card before your money is stolen. Get online, and type in the company’s name along with the words “gift card scams.” Follow the instructions the company gives you to report your fraud. You’ll need your gift card numbers and receipt.
Older adults are ripe targets for any scam delivered by phone, email or social media. Criminals know that many older adults retire with a nest egg and tend to trust anyone claiming to be a government official.
Valley seniors are pretty sharp and most of us came away with “street smarts.” So when that little voice in the back of your mind says, “This sounds fishy,” pay attention to your instincts. Hang up, and leave the gift cards hanging on the rack.
If you have a question on a possible scam, talk to a family member or call your local police department. Seniors can also call their county Senior Services Unit for more information about scams. In Mahoning County, call Bob Schaeffer at 330-480-5078. In Trumbull County, call Don Hyde at 330-675-7096.
Dave Long of Poland, a Youngstown State University graduate, is a retired public affairs officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection who later worked as an Elder Scam Prevention Outreach specialist in Rochester, N.Y., before moving back to the Mahoning Valley. Long answers questions during a series of monthly talks on the latest scams, why scammers target seniors and how to protect personal information 1 p.m. fourth Thursday of every month at the Poland Township Government Center, 3339 Dobbins Road, Poland.