Beware of Gift Card Scams

Threatening calls that you will be arrested or your electricity will be turned off can sound so real. But don’t go running out to buy a gift card to keep your lights on. Learn how the fast-changing gift card scam works so you’ll be ready if your phone rings.

An older woman reads the numbers off a gift card to a caller.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

My paralegal, Anne, buzzed me:

“Dennis, you have readers from Palm Springs on the line, a 90-year-old mom and her 55-year-old son. He is trying to prevent her from sending money to scammers using a gift card.”

That call could not have come at a better time, as I had just interviewed Attorney Matthew du Mée, Chief Counsel in the Consumer Litigation Unit of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, about this very issue: gift card scams.

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‘We Are about to Turn off Your Electricity’

“Mr. Beaver, my mom, Bertie, said that her electricity was about to be turned off unless she paid the utility bill, which she thought was already paid.”

Bertie said, “I am afraid of losing my A/C, so that’s what I was going to do — to go to a 7-11 as the nice gentleman on the phone who called from the power utility said to do to. He said to avoid having my electricity shut off today, I had to buy a gift card for $350 and give him the numbers.”

I shared the story with du Mée, and it was all too familiar to him. “Were it not for her son phoning you, Dennis, I am certain she would have become another victim of gift card scams, as the call she received fits the pattern perfectly,” he explained. The FTC reports that around $10 million a month has been lost globally to these scams.

He outlined how these scams work:

“You get a phone call that sounds urgent, and you’re told to purchase a gift card and read off the numbers by phone. The justification falls into several categories.”

1. The tech support scam

The caller says. “We are from Microsoft (or some other tech company) and your computer is infected. In order to fix it, you will need to pay us, so go buy a gift card, call this 800 number and read us the numbers. We will do the rest.”

In fact, there is nothing wrong with your computer.

2. The utility scam

We see this a lot in Arizona and other places with high summer temperatures. Someone calls, saying they are from your local utility and your electricity will be shut off unless you pay your bill right now as it is past due. The only way is to buy a gift card and read off the number over the phone.

I ask du Mée: “But what if I say, ‘I will go to the local office and pay it there?’”

His reply: “Scammers call around 4:45 p.m. and say, ‘Our office is only open until 5, so if you do not pay now, the electricity will be turned off immediately!’”

3. Government imposters

“There is a warrant out for your arrest because you didn’t pay your taxes on time. In order to avoid this happening, you need to go and buy a gift card to pay off your debt.”

Matthew points out, “The government does not call and say they are about to arrest you. Sometimes the scammers are using spoofed numbers that look like they are calling from some government agency, but they are not, so you cannot trust your caller ID. Remember, the government typically does business by mail. You will never be called and asked to verify your Social Security number. Never give it to someone calling you out of the blue!”

Advice to Families

“My best advice is to first of all understand how our brains can become our own worst enemy at these times,” du Mée underscores.

“The caller wants the victim to be impulsive — to panic — when they say things that sound threatening. Instead, if you say to yourself, ‘This is probably not real,’ chances are that you will prevent higher-level brain function from shutting down.

“So, ask the caller for their phone number, case number, amount that is past due, and that you will have your (son, daughter, husband, wife, accountant, someone) look into it, and then if this can be confirmed, will be happy to pay.

“Usually the caller will say, ‘It will be too late, and the deputy will be right over to arrest you,’ ‘The lights will go out,’ or anything intended to scare you. Do not fall for it!”

Families need to have a discussion about these issues and encourage everyone to never respond to someone on the phone saying you need to buy some kind of gift card and read them the number. If you hear this, just hang up the phone immediately, as they are so convincing and the reasons they have change all the time.”

Matthew concluded our discussion by saying that what he likes most about being a consumer protection attorney “is the fact that we are helping people every day. My boss, Attorney General Mark Brnovich, has a passion for helping, and we have been able to recover over $200 million for consumers. I love what I do.”


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."