AARP and Bellingham PD warn: Gift cards are popular with scammers

Washington’s AARP recently asked a group of people to label the following statement as true or false:

“It’s always a scam when someone asks you to pay a debt or other obligation with a gift card such as eBay, Google Play, or a retail store gift card.”

“If someone asks you to pay anything – bills, deposit, hospital bills, etc. – on the phone and asks you to buy gift cards, it’s a 100% scam “, says Lt. Claudia Murphy of the Bellingham Police Department. Photo courtesy of AARP Washington

Seventy-six percent of people got the answer right: using a gift card as payment East a scam. But that means 24% of people got it wrong or weren’t sure enough to give one. It may be a minority, but it’s still enough of the population that around $100 million a year is lost in gift card scams.

Bellingham Police Department Public Information Officer Lt. Claudia Murphy wants to help make the correct answer crystal clear to everyone. “If someone asks you to pay anything – bills, deposit, hospital bills, etc. – on the phone and asks you to buy gift cards, it’s a 100% scam “, she says. “No one will ask you to pay a bill using a gift card, it’s just not done.”

The police department has worked with AARP and others on a three-pronged approach to help protect people from these scams. The first step is to educate the public about how scams work.

“They’ll call you and say you need to make a payment on something or your truck’s insurance has run out,” Murphy says. “They’ll say your grandson is in hospital and we need payment right away to have surgery, or your daughter is in jail and we need bail so she can exit.”

These seemingly simple scams are actually quite sophisticated, and scammers go out of their way to convince their targets. “A lot of them do research, and maybe they know the grandson’s name is Colby, so they can say, ‘Colby’s been in a wreck.’ They give enough information and people really fall for it,” says Murphy. “Basically they put someone in a fight-or-flight state. Now they’re not thinking clearly, and that’s what crooks want: to keep them in the spotlight.”

Once they have their target’s attention and they feel they are in an emergency situation, the scammers put pressure to get the money fast. They tell the target not to hang up and direct her to a store to buy gift cards.

“Outside the store, the scammer will have them read the number on the back of the card and the phone conversation will end,” Murphy explains. “Now that they’ve had a moment to think about it, they know they’ve been scammed. At that point, it’s absolutely too late, there’s no way to get that money back.

The second component calls on people in the AARP member age range to help spread the word. “We ask 45-65 year olds to educate their young children [who] are between 20 and 25 years old,” says Murphy. “They buy food, pay their bills, go to class and have friends online. So if someone online asks them for money, they will give it to them because they trust things online.

The younger generation isn’t the only demographic the AARP crowd can reach. “They also have parents in their 60s to 90s who haven’t lived their lives online, who might trust someone who says they’ve missed jury duty and they’ve got a fine of $500,” Murphy said. “They have a sense of responsibility for a grandchild in jail or in hospital.”

Finally, Murphy sees another group of potential allies. “The third prong is bringing the biggest companies online with us — Fred Meyer, Haggen, Lowe’s — all the places you can buy wholesale gift cards,” she says. “We want this group of people to understand that when someone comes in on the phone and buys five or six gift cards, you have to send them to customer service. And let the customer service people know that if you have a 75-year-old grandma standing in front of you on her phone, that’s a red flag.

There are also new versions of these cheats designed to keep up. “With the housing market the way it is, we have all kinds of scams about houses and apartments for rent that aren’t actually for rent,” says Murphy. “They mimic real locations so one person calls and the person on the other end says, ‘I have 10 people looking at the place; send me $250 and I can guarantee you a visit. We’ve had several reports over the past few months where people have lost over $2,400.

The one thing that stays constant with scams is Murphy’s advice: “If you don’t trust him, or think he’s fake, hang up.” And if you have been contacted by a scammer, you can notify the local police. in lineor by calling their non-emergency number, 360-676-6911.

AARP offers another set of resources for education and support; his Scam tips is an excellent guide to spotting fraudsters. Links to other regional pages, including bellingham, lists the five most prevalent scams today and lets you listen to audio recordings of real scam calls. The site also includes resources such as the Federal Trade Commission’s phone number (1-877-FTC-HELP), a link to the AARP Fraud Monitoring Networkand other organizations that provide financial education.


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Michael N. Clark