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Beware of Gift Card Scams

App store and iTunes gift cards and Google Play gift cards on a rack
Image via Identity Theft Resource Center

Christmas may be over, but that doesn’t mean that online scammers have stopped trying to use the holidays as an excuse to separate you and your money. One of the more nefarious scams hit close to home today when my wife received an email from an acquaintance who she barely knows. It turned out to be a gift card scam, and here’s what you should watch out for.

The email appeared to be from this acquaintance and was quite simple:

Good to hear from you, hope all is well with you? I need to get four google play gift cards for my niece. It’s her birthday but I can’t do this now because I’m currently traveling. Can you get it for me from any store around you? I’ll pay back next week when I get home.

It was addressed by name to my wife, and had a short signature from the person. My wife immediately thought it was suspicious, but responded that we might be willing to do so to help a friend in need. The scammer went on:

Thanks a lot. You can get them from any grocery or drug stores close to you. Total amount you need to get is $400, it should be four cards at $100 each and you can send me the pictures of the cards showing the sixteen digits pin at the back of the cards as soon as you open and scratch the cards. I have attached a picture sample of how one of them looks like when you scratch the cards. I hope you can get it soon… Kindly let me know.

That really set off alarm bells, so I told my wife that if the alleged friend really needed the cards ASAP, she could buy them online from a variety of sources (Target.com, Walmart.com, Amazon.com…) and have the numbers immediately. The scammer responded:

That’s the problem. I also tried purchasing it online but they kept declining my cards and now I am out of the country. I already promised my niece I was going to purchase it on my way to the airport but I totally forgot. I will really appreciate it if you can assist me in purchasing it locally from the stores.

By this point, we were both totally sure it was a scam, so my wife replied that there was no way she’d buy the cards, that she would forward the email stream to the local police department, and also that she knew it was a scam. As Google notes on its own Google Play Gift Card help pages,

A scammer claims to be a family member in trouble, an attorney, or other representative of your family member. The scammer tells you that they need to be paid in gift cards in order to remedy the situation and may deter you from contacting the family member to verify the claim. Don’t believe them and never buy gift cards for them or provide them with any gift card codes.

(https://support.google.com/googleplay/answer/9057338?hl=en)

At this point I asked my wife to check the email address, which did not correspond to the known email address of the friend. We sent the friend an email to her real address, and sure enough she was aware that her name and email address were being used by a scammer.

It’s not just Google Play gift cards; this scam is being used with all sorts of similar gift cards. Just keep your eyes open and don’t believe that a friend is asking you to buy gift cards online.

Steve Sande
the authorSteve Sande
Contributing Author
Steve is the publisher of Apple World Today, a website providing news, reviews and how-tos for the world of Apple, as well as an author on The Rocket Yard. He's an avid photographer, an FAA-licensed drone pilot, and a really bad guitarist.
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