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Media > Newsletters > Consumer Advocate > December 2012 > Scam Alert: ‘Free’ Gift Cards

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Scam Alert: ‘Free’ Gift Cards

As the holiday season approaches, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine recommends learning to identify scams targeting holiday shoppers.
In one scam, consumers receive a letter claiming they have won “free gift cards” to reputable retail and grocery stores. The letter prompts the consumer to activate the card by calling a phone number provided in the letter. Once the consumer calls, the “company” demands a bank account number to cover a $3.95 “activation fee.”
In reality, the letter is counterfeit. It may be printed on letterhead resembling that of a reputable store, but the gift cards do not exist, and consumers who respond to the letter risk revealing their bank account number, mailing address, name, and phone number to scammers.
Consumers also may receive text messages claiming they have won a gift card. To claim the prize, they are instructed to click on a link in the message or send a text message to a certain number. Despite the enticing claims in the message, the offer is phony, and if consumers respond, they are disclosing personal information to the senders.
Recent reports also indicate scammers are tampering with publicly displayed gift cards found in local grocery stores. Criminals use small, inexpensive magnetic-stripe scanners to quickly record and store account and PIN numbers located on the front and back of legitimate gift cards.
The criminals exit the store and then wait a few days for consumers to purchase the cards. Once the cards have been purchased, the criminals dial the number listed on the back of the gift card, then punch in the account and PIN numbers. The criminals use this information to access redeemable gift cards.
Unfortunately, consumers may not realize that the card balance has been stolen until after the holiday season. By that time, it may be nearly impossible to recover the money or catch the perpetrator.
How to protect yourself
If you receive an unsolicited letter in the mail claiming you have won a gift card, do not call the phone number listed or respond in any other way. By contacting the “company,” you are verifying that the address is valid and may be revealing other personal information.
You should not have to pay a fee for something that is “free.” Legitimate prizes require no purchase. If you receive a similar letter in the mail, contact the retail store — using information listed from a reliable source, not the letter — and report the scam.
Consider purchasing gift cards directly from retail stores’ websites. Ensure that the website address reads “https” — rather than “http” — prior to entering any personal information. The “s” indicates that the website is secure. 
If you opt to purchase gift cards in-store, make sure to inspect the packaging prior to purchase. Do not purchase a gift card if the packaging is broken or torn.
Contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515 or for more information or to report a scam.