As advocates urge more protections from gift card scams, this is 1 red flag to watch for
People in the tristate area lost $265 million to gift card scams last year, more than twice as much as in 2019, according to AARP. But a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds victims are often left on their own, with no recourse. Some advocates say consumers need more protection.
John and Claire Malecky of Bayonne, New Jersey, are still coping with losing their life savings of more than $104,000 to a scam last summer.
"The nights that I sat up and couldn't sleep, thinking and thinking, 'What did I do'?" Claire Maleckty recalls.
The retirees thought Amazon's fraud department was telling them their bank accounts had been hacked, and the only way to fix it was to withdraw the cash, buy gift cards, and give the scammers the codes. This was supposedly so the money could be transferred to a secure account.
"For two solid weeks, I was traveling around in all kinds of weather," John Malecky says. "I mean, there was a flash flood, there was heavy traffic, there was the heat. And I was getting really run down. There were days when I bought $14,000 worth of cards."
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Could the scam have been prevented? Receipts show John Malecky bought more than $49,000 worth of gift cards at one retailer - Walgreens.
Kane In Your Corner contacted Walgreens. Scott Goldberg, global director of corporate communications, said its “team members are advised to politely decline transactions larger than $750.”
But receipts show Walgreens repeatedly sold Malecky $2,000 worth of gift cards at a time. Cashiers simply rang them up as four separate $500 transactions.
Some of Malecky's daily totals were staggering: $8,000, $10,000, and on one day, nearly $11,000. Walgreens says it has been in touch with the Maleckys in hopes of resolving the issue.
Store policy aside, retailers can generally sell the same customer up to $10,000 in gift cards a day. That adds up to $70,000 a week, $300,000 a month, or more than $3.6 million a year. It’s enough to have some advocates question whether those rules protect anyone.
"We can't consumer-educate our way out of this problem," says John Breyault, with the National Consumer Law Center.
The NCLC argues gift card fraud could be brought under control if Congress required companies to offer fraud protection. He notes a credit card company would never allow repeated identical large purchases at the same retailer. It would block them, deeming them suspicious.
In the meantime, absent regulation, how can you better protect yourself from gift card fraud? Advocates say there are not a lot of red flags to watch out for. In fact, there's just one.
"Anytime anybody asks you to pay some alleged obligation with a gift card, it is a scam, 100% of the time," says Kathy Stokes, Director of Fraud Prevention at AARP. "People ask about, 'What are the red flags?' That's the red flag."