Legitimate Companies and Government Agencies Do Not Have You Buy Gift Cards to Pay Them--It's a Scam! Hang Up the Phone!
If you remember nothing else from this newsletter, remember this: If someone who is supposedly helping you requires you to buy Gift Cards to pay them (or to pay a bill or debt that they claim you owe), you are probably talking to a fake and a scammer, not a person from a legitimate organization. Don't buy any Gift Cards! Stop talking to them immediately!
This process can involve any number of elements:
- Someone may contact you by phone, or you may receive an email, computer pop-up, text message, or a letter via the US Mail that prompts you to call them.
- Once you're talking on the phone, that person may say that they've detected a problem with your computer (or phone or tablet) or your account and that they can fix it, or that you owe money for some software, or a subscription, or a medical bill, tax bill, or utility bill, or that you have the opportunity to make a donation to a worthy cause or charity or church.
- They may say that they work for a well-known company (like Microsoft tech support, Google, Norton, AOL, or Amazon) or a government agency (like the IRS, Social Security, or Registry of Motor Vehicles) or a utility (your gas or electric or fuel-oil company) or a nonprofit or foundation.
- The caller id information displayed by your phone will probably also be faked to match the company or agency from which they're supposedly calling.
- They may also threaten you with consequences if you don't pay, like your computer crashing, cutting off your services or electricity, freezing your bank account, incurring fines and penalties, even getting arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison.
While these scams have all been around for years, the clever new twist involves the type of payment they ask for. Instead of a bank account or credit card number, they'll ask you to drive to one or more stores (keeping you scared so you're not thinking clearly, and keeping you on the phone so you can't talk to someone else that you may know and trust) and buy Gift Cards, and then give them the card numbers and PINs on the back.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, Gift Cards are the most common way that scammers want to be paid, and tens of thousands of victims of this fraud have typically been tricked into paying hundreds or thousands of dollars each.
Gift Cards have a number of advantages to the scammer:
- Once you read them the card numbers (or text them photos of the cards), they get your money instantly.
- If you use your credit card to buy the Gift Cards, you won't be able to file a fraud complaint with your credit card company later because you bought the Gift Cards, not the scammer, so it's technically not credit card fraud.
What to do if you haven't bought any Gift Cards yet
If you find yourself getting pressured or threatened into paying, stop and think, especially if the other person wants to be paid via Gift Cards. That's a sure sign that you're talking to a scammer. Legitimate companies accept checks and credit cards.
Don't believe anything further. Hang up the phone.
If they have also convinced you to give them remote access into your computer or smartphone or tablet, do one of the following immediately:
- If you've given the scammer remote access into your Windows or Macintosh computer, invoke the Shut Down command.
- If you've given the scammer remote access into your iPhone, iPad, or Android, power it off.
- If you're on a laptop computer and for some reason you can't do Shut Down, you could press and hold the power button for at least 10 seconds to force it to power off
- If you're on a desktop computer, you could also pull out the power cord.
I recommend doing this because malicious scammers are known to get angry when you decide not to pay them, so it's important to disconnect them from your computer or mobile device right away.
What to do if you have already bought Gift Cards and given over the numbers
If you've already given the Gift Card numbers to the scammer:
- Contact the company that issued the Gift Cards and explain what happened.
- File a report with your local police department, and get a copy of the report. That might help when you talk to the company that issued the Gift Cards.
Where to go from here