Guarding Your Generosity: Avoiding Giving Empty Gift Cards

Gift cards remain a popular and often quick-and-easy gift idea. With a myriad of options available, gift cards seem like a great gift choice.

But are they?

While most gift cards work fine, a growing number of individuals are experiencing a shocking surprise when they discover their brand-new gift card is empty after crooks mysteriously drained money off the gift card. The highest percentage of theft happened through major credit cards (i.e. Visa and American Express). In fact, complaints have flooded into the Better Business Bureau, with a particular focus on Vanilla Visa gift cards.

According to a survey by the AARP, over 20% of respondents reported either giving or receiving a gift card with no funds on it.

Kathy Stokes, AARP’s Director of Fraud Prevention Programs, said there have been situations where people will walk to the rack of gift cards in a store and quietly grab a stack. They will then record all the card’s information. If any PIN number or code on the card needs to be scratched off, a hacker will scratch it off, copy the number, then put another silver scratch off sticker over the number. Those stickers are sold online, and it makes the gift card look as good as new. Stokes said the hackers than have technology to track when the card is activated. Once alerted that it’s activated, the thieves will drain it clean. Source

Kathy Stokes AARP’s Director of Fraud Prevention Programs

How New Gift Cards have Zero Balances
Many scammers physically go into stores and copy the number off of the card and record the pin numbers/card codes. They then place their own replacement stickers over the scratched off pin number to make it look untampered with. (Some even take them home for this process.) Once an unsuspecting individual buys and loads a card, the scammers are ready take the next step. They are likely notified funds have been loaded on a particular card by utilizing automated methods or they consistently monitor card numbers waiting for funds to be available. Once they are aware of the funds, they are prepared to spend the money as they wish.

The Frustration of Seeking Resolution:
For those who fall victim to this scam, seeking help can be an exercise in frustration. Numerous consumers have shared their experiences of being told to wait up to 90 days before receiving assistance in resolving a claim. Even then, there’s no guarantee of getting the money back.

How to Avoid this Scam: 

To avoid falling prey to this type of scam, it’s essential to take proactive measures:

Take Necessary Precautions:
Thankfully gift card companies are adding protections for consumers, who are increasingly being duped. Before purchasing a gift card, be sure to check company policies and guidelines. Some cards come with “zero liability protection,” safeguarding recipients from unauthorized purchases if the card is lost or stolen after registration. However, registration is often required for this protection to apply. You can find most of the company policies online or you can ask at the store’s service desk.

Inspect for Tampering:
Whether buying a Visa gift card or one from a specific store, always inspect the packaging for signs of tampering. Look for stickers, scratched numbers, or any indications that the package may have been resealed.

Register Your Card:
Register your gift card as soon as you receive it. This extra step can add a layer of protection against unauthorized transactions.

Keep Your Receipt:
Save the receipt. It serves as proof of purchase and may be needed if you encounter any issues. If you’re giving the card as a gift, attach the receipt to the card.

Opt for Digital Gift Cards:
Consider purchasing digital gift cards instead of physical ones. Digital cards can reduce the risk of third-party gift fraud, as they are often more secure than physical ones.

Action to Take if You are a Victim

If you encounter this issue call the customer service number listed on the card itself immediately. While it may take months to receive your stolen funds, many consumers do receive the funds back.  

If you have fallen victim to this fraud from any company, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which handles complaints about deceptive or unfair business practices. To learn more about common gift card scams, visit