Gift cards may not be the most personal present you can give. But an Amazon, Target, Barnes & Noble or iTunes gift card is the perfect way to ensure that the recipient gets something they’ll love — provided the card’s balance hasn’t been siphoned away by a hacker. 

The Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to be on the lookout for gift cards that may have been tampered with. The way it usually happens is actually pretty simple: Because many retailers, including grocery stores and pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, display their gift card selections in wide open spots, the cards are just as accessible to thieves as they are to genuine shoppers.

How hackers siphon away gift card balances

Using a magnetic strip reader (which can be purchased online rather easily, and for under $100), these yuletide scammers scan the card’s account number, scratch off the back to uncover the PIN, then cover up the number with a new strip — and hope that shoppers won’t be any the wiser. When that card is then purchased and funded, the hacker receives an alert and can spend your money however they see fit. 

Gift cards are in demand

While all that might seem like a lot of work — and risk — for a $50 dinner at Outback Steakhouse, consider the volume: according to the National Retail Federation, gift cards are people’s most requested item for the thirteenth year in a row in 2019, with 59% of those surveyed putting them at the top of their wish list.

“Before purchasing a gift card, look carefully at the packaging for any tears, wrinkles, or other indications of tampering.”
–Better Business Bureau

Annually, these little bits of plastic have turned into a $160 billion business. So how can you ensure that the card you’re purchasing has not already gotten into the hands of a hacker? The BBB says to stay vigilant:

“No matter where gift cards are displayed in the store, thieves are known to remove gift cards from the display rack and record the numbers associated with that card, including the activation PIN. Before purchasing a gift card, look carefully at the packaging for any tears, wrinkles, or other indications of tampering, and see if the PIN is exposed. If anything looks suspicious, it’s probably best to take a different card, and turn in the compromised card to the store’s Customer Service Desk.”

More gift card security tips

The organization also suggests researching the rules related to gift card purchases via the Federal Trade Commission — which offers some of its own tips for the safe purchase of gift cards.

The FTC advises buying only from known and trusted retailers (and forgoing online auction sites, no matter how good the deal might seem), and tucking the original receipt into the card when handing over the gift. That way, the recipient has all of the documentation in case the card is lost or stolen. 

If you do find yourself the victim of a gift card swindle, you should report the incident to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 877-382-4357.