Beware of gift card fraud — don't let it hijack your perfect present

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Gift card fraud Malwarebytes
Scammers seeing a goldmine when they look at gift cards, as this kind of fraud is hard to trace. (Photo: Getty)

The past few years have been a wild ride for online shoppers, and the 2022 holiday season probably won't be much different. Experts are expecting aftershocks from the notorious supply chain crisis — namely inflation, understaffing and inventory uncertainties — to impact holiday shopping again.

Smart consumers are ahead of the game. A recent survey by RetailMeNot revealed that more than 50% of holiday shoppers plan on circumventing these issues by going the gift card route this year. The only problem? The very real dangers of gift card fraud.

Once a scammer hijacks your gift card, they can drain its value effortlessly, but that’s just the beginning. Gift card fraud can be a gateway to even more complex cyber fraud. In the worst-case scenario, thieves can move on to stealing your payment details, draining your bank account and even stealing your identity.

It’s important to stay extra vigilant about online fraud around the holiday season. One easy way to do that is by enlisting to keep an eye out for you. This industry-leading cybersecurity software can thwart even the most sophisticated cyber attacks in real time and clean up any viruses or malware that might already be infecting your computer.

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Unpacking gift card fraud: A glimpse into the mind of a hacker

"Generally speaking, gift card fraud is easier to commit than other types of scams," cyber security expert Rafael Lourenco, Executive Vice President of fraud prevention group ClearSale, tells AOL. "In fact, for many merchants, gift cards have the highest fraud attempt rates of all products sold."

This is because gift cards are so easy to resell or convert into cash, he says, and gift card transactions are so hard to trace.

"Fraudsters have creative ways of committing gift card fraud," Lourenco tells AOL. But first, they need access to the gift card’s account number (and sometimes its PIN), which they can steal with a magnetic stripe reader or just by taking pictures of gift cards in the store before you even purchase them.

Gift card fraud
Gift card fraud doesn't have to steal the joy from your holiday season. (Photo: Getty)

"Gift cards that are displayed and accessible to shoppers in stores are easy targets for fraudsters," says Lourenco. "They can scratch off the PIN number protection and replace it with stickers sold online."

E-gift card information can be stolen,"in a number of ways including phishing, SQL injection, social engineering, fraudulent employees or accidental disclosure," adds Lourenco. "Hackers can also acquire gift card numbers in bulk from merchants, reward programs, etc. Once the cards are activated by a legitimate purchase, the fraudsters will transfer balances to another card or sell the card."

Once they hack into the credit card used to purchase the gift card, scammers can even make their way into your card’s loyalty program. "Hackers will reroute miles and loyalty points to monetize the value in the credits into gift cards," says Lourenco. And if they gain access to the username and password tied to a virtual gift card, fraudsters can also use it to access other accounts that use the same credentials.

This kind of infiltration also makes gift card givers and recipients vulnerable to phishing scams, which can quickly infect their system with malware. All from a "harmless" and all-too-common holiday gift.

gift card fraud Malwarebytes
Protect yourself against gift card fraud this season

Gift card fraud is on the rise

The Federal Trade Commission reports that gift card fraud has been on the rise since the pandemic started. In the first nine months of 2021, more gift card fraud was reported than in all of 2020. One in three Americans has fallen victim to gift card fraud, according to a survey by AARP.

Scammers can even hack into your system and discover e-gift cards, especially those with auto-load features, like some that are tied to apps for fast food restaurants or coffee shops. The auto-load features sync with a store's app and automatically refill from a bank account or credit card when the balance gets low.

This type of scam has been at the center of fraud allegations in recent years. Having software like Malwarebytes Premium installed on your tech could prevent that malicious code from wriggling onto your device and leaving you to grapple with your bank over fraudulent charges.

But, if you fall victim to the crime anyway this season, consider Lourenco’s advice: "If a consumer is victim of gift card fraud, they will need to contact their issuer for the chargeback so they can be reimbursed and the bank will likely have to cancel the compromised credit card and issue the consumer a new one," he says.

If anyone ever asks for a payment in the form of a gift card, it’s most definitely a form of fraud and should be reported immediately to the Federal Trade Commission.

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