FBI warns shoppers about new type of gift card scam

SEATTLE — The FBI Seattle is warning people tonight about scammers targeting shoppers who are purchasing gift cards.

The growing trend comes as people purchase gift cards for the holidays, often putting them inside Christmas cards that aren’t opened for a couple of weeks. In that time, the FBI says, thieves are taking the cards’ balance to zero.

Crystal Downes said her father, Steve Elf, purchased an Amazon gift card at the Fred Meyer in Bothell for his grandson Ethan’s 18th birthday.

“When we went to redeem his gift card online, which did come in a sealed package, it had already been redeemed!” she said.

“Did you think it was just maybe a technical glitch?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

“Yes, of course!” she said. “I mean, what could go wrong with buying a gift card?”

When Downes tried entering the information herself on Amazon’s website, it showed that the card had already been redeemed. She said they checked with Fred Meyer, which confirmed it had been loaded.

“They directed me to Amazon,” she said. Downes said Amazon sent her a message, which stated that for cards purchased directly from Amazon.com, “we can take action such as Refund and Replacement,” but for cards purchased from a store, “the transaction is made directly with (the) respective store.”

Ethan Via with the FBI Seattle office said it’s a new kind of gift card scam the FBI is seeing.

“They’ve peeled off the stickers on the back,” he said. “They have the activation and the PIN numbers for those cards, but then they put a sticker back on and they hang them back up on the rack… once they see that the card’s activated, they go ahead and spend the money.”

Via said criminals are also taking advantage of all the online shopping people are doing now by sending emails or texts that look like they’re from a major shipping company.

“When you click on the link, to actually look at the tracking information, you’ve downloaded either malware to your device or it takes you to a spoofed website where they then attempt to get personal or financial information,” he said. He recommends that people always go to the website directly and never click on links.

As for Downes’s father, he is still out the money for the gift card and has since purchased a new one for his grandson.

“There should be a warning on the kiosk at the store that this is a real risk,” she said. “Otherwise, how do you know? We certainly didn’t.”

A Fred Meyer spokesperson said he’s contacted the store manager at the Bothell Fred Meyer and that they will make things right with Elf.

“Our teams are working with law enforcement regularly on this issue,” he said.

The FBI said anyone who’s been a victim of this scam or other internet-related scams should report them to IC3.gov. To avoid this gift card scam, the FBI recommends ordering directly from the retailer.

Via said they also generally see scammers impersonating charities around the holiday season and he urged people to research a charity on CharityNavigator.org before giving.