Woman looking at gift card disapprovingly

Gift Card Tampering Scam: Check Your Card for Scratched Codes

September 18, 2023

By Michelle Hacker • Digital Services Officer

You already know to be wary of anyone who insists you pay with a gift card. But what happens if a gift card you buy legitimately has already been redeemed?

This is happening at alarming rates to people across the country, who buy gift cards that scammers have already stolen the codes from. So the next time you buy a gift card, check the back of the card and make sure it doesn't look like the one below.

Example of a compromised gift card:

Gift Card Tampering Example
Note how the pin number has been scratched away, prior to purchase. Always check gift cards on the shelf before you buy them. Source: Tulsa World

As you can see, a scammer has already scratched off the code. In this article, we will tell you how to avoid a "zero-value" gift card — when someone buys or receives a card that turns out to have no funds on it — and what to do if you find out you're a victim of this scam.

How a gift card tampering scam works:

  • Step 1: The hacker goes to a store and grabs a stack of gift cards.
  • Step 2: They record the card numbers and PINs, or scratch off any protective covering and copy the numbers. Then, they put the cards back on the shelf to wait until they are purchased by someone else.
  • Step 3: While the scammer waits, they check back frequently to the gift card store's website, where they can upload a card's balance to their own profile, the moment a gift card is activated.
  • Step 4: Once the customer buys and activates the card, the scammer knows and pounces. They upload the balance to their own profile, and the unaware buyer will soon find out that their gift card's balance has disappeared.

How to avoid buying a scammed gift card

  • Inspect gift cards carefully before you purchase them. Look for any signs of tampering, such as damaged packaging or scratched-off codes.
  • Buy gift cards online from the retailer's website. This is safer than buying them in a store, where they can be easily accessed by scammers. If you do buy a gift card in a store, take one from the back of the rack. Scammers are more likely to tamper with cards that are on the front of the rack.
  • Never give the gift card number or PIN to anyone, not even a friend or family member. By being aware of this scam and taking precautions, you can help to protect yourself from becoming a victim.

Has your gift card been tampered with? 

If you find out your gift card has been depleted by a scammer, there's some good news — you may still be able to recover your balance. Some retailers and gift card companies might be able to get your money back, if you contact them right away. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has created a popular list of how to contact gift card companies and report your stolen gift card. And, when all else fails, you can return to the store in person and request a refund. Be sure to have your receipt on hand! 

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About the Author

Michelle Hacker

Michelle Hacker is the Digital Services Officer at Security National Bank, overseeing all personal and business digital platforms for customers. She is a graduate of Iowa State University and has nearly a decade of experience in the technology and financial service field.