“Any time someone asks you to solve a problem using gift cards, it’s a scam.”

The warning could not be blunter. Such is the advice given by consumer fraud experts as we stride through the holiday season — an especially popular time for scammers who love trapping people into buying gift cards as step one of their own nefarious schemes. And once they’ve wormed the PIN number on the back of those cards from their victims, as the Federal Trade Commission notes, “they can get quick cash while staying anonymous.”

How much cash?

More than $429 million since 2018, according to the latest FTC figures. And just to show you how trendy these con artists can be, some are now selling the cards for Bitcoin on online exchanges instead of simply auctioning them off the old-fashioned way on common websites.
How then could anyone fall for a scam like this? It’s all about plausible excuses.

“Scammers prey on people’s fear and have just enough personal information to create a sense of panic,” says Jenny Grounds, chief marketing officer of Cybercrime Support Network, an organization combating cybercrime for individuals and small businesses and educating consumers about scams. “It’s that panic that makes their targets feel they need to act immediately without a chance to stop and think.”

Below are four common tactics to be mindful of:

The Email from Your “Boss” Scam
Either by hacking into their account or using a spoofed email address, the fraudster asks for your urgent help with something job-related. Maybe it’s a surprise office party. Or maybe it’s a gift for a special client. In either case, you’re often told the supposed vendor needs to immediately be paid in gift cards and that you’ll naturally be reimbursed for buying them — except, of course, you won’t be.

The Government Imposter Scam
“This is the IRS,” the fraudster begins, using the four words sure to strike terror in anyone’s heart. And that’s the point. Whether it’s the IRS, the Social Security Administration or some other agency, according to a report by the Better Business Bureau, “they claim the consumer has done something illegal, and must either pay a ‘fine’ with a gift card or move their money temporarily to a ‘safe’ account by purchasing gift cards.”

The Romance Scam
Reported scams increased by nearly 70 percent last year, according to the FTC, and the pandemic no doubt played a major role. That’s because these silver-tongued devils find their prey on online dating sites and social media, and COVID-19 made for the perfect excuse as to why — as much as they really, really “love” their new-found marks — they couldn’t meet in person. Often impersonating soldiers, they’ll tell you the military doesn’t pay well, so could you please send gift cards to have, for instance, their car repaired.

The Tech Support Scam
Pop-up messages that may appear warning of a serious issue on your computer can be alarming. However, as Grounds states, “they’re asking you to pay for services you don’t need to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”