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Gift card scams cost Tennesseans nearly $1 million

Contributed • Dec 12, 2018 at 12:00 AM

’Tis the season for giving, but the holidays are also a time for scammers to take Tennesseans’ hard-earned money.

Officials with the state Department of Commerce and Insurance’s Division of Consumer Affairs say Tennessee consumers are falling victims to gift card swindles in increasing numbers. The Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network reports Tennesseans lost more than $943,000 through prepaid gift card scams in 2018, which is a 44 percent increase compared to 2017 when scammers stole $653,709 from consumers.

While family, friends, and co-workers may use gift cards to express holiday appreciation, scammers want the cards’ PIN numbers for fast cash and they’re willing to do anything to get those numbers from consumers.

TDCI is warning consumers of a new and increasingly common scam where callers pretending to represent a federal or state agency contact consumers about a fictitious debt and demand payment in the form of a prepaid gift card or risk punishment. Consumers should remember no government agency will demand payment in the form of a reloadable gift card.

“Gift card scams are growing as thieves learn they can take advantage of unsuspecting and vulnerable consumers,” TDCI Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak said. “I urge consumers to educate themselves in order to fight back against these unscrupulous individuals. If someone calls you demanding payment via a gift card, I urge you to hang up and report the incident to your local law enforcement authorities.”

To help consumers avoid prepaid gift card and other holiday scams, TDCI offers the following tips to avoid gift card scams:

• Always remember that a government agency will never ask for payment in the form of a prepaid gift card.

• Never read or text someone the PIN number on the back of a gift card. The number is as good as cash in the scammers’ pocket.

• Reputable businesses, like technology support companies and shop-at-home services, don’t ask for gift cards as payment.

• If you’re buying gift cards as gifts, make sure to buy them from a reputable and known source.

• Always treat gift cards like cash and protect them as you would your wallet.

Other tips to avoid holiday scams are:

• Be suspicious of apps, online advertisements, or websites offering prices that seem suspiciously lower than retail prices at trusted retailers.

• Pay with a credit card that offers fraud protection when possible.

• Shop on secure websites. Look for https in the address (the extra “s” is for “secure”) and for a lock symbol.

• Some retailers and delivery services need extra help at the holidays, but beware of solicitations that require you to share personal information online or pay for a job lead.

• Several trusted companies offer charming and personalized letters from Santa, but scammers mimic them to get personal information from unsuspecting parents. Check with https://www.bbb.org to find out which ones are legitimate.

• Be cautious if you get a call or email from a family member or friend claiming to be in an accident, arrested or hospitalized while traveling in another country. Never send money unless you confirm with another family member that it’s true.

And remember the following advice when giving to charities:

• Don’t assume that charity recommendations on social media platforms or blogs have already been vetted. Research the charity yourself.

• Find out what percentage of your donation will go to the charity and whether you will be charged any fees for making a donation through a fundraising platform website.

• Check to see if the charity is registered with the Tennessee Secretary of State.

• Websites posing as charities can sometimes look identical to the real organization. These fraudulent websites will often ask for personal or financial information over an unsecured connection.

• If you didn’t initiate contact, avoid giving personal or financial information over the phone.

• Never write out a check or give cash to an individual solicitor.

For more information on being a savvy consumer, visit tn.gov/consumer.

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