AARP Study Finds 1 in 3 US Adults Have Been Targeted by Gift Card Scams

Indialantic, FL, USA - July 29, 2011: A variety of restaurant gift cards on a white background, including Cracker Barrel, McDonald's, Olive Garden, Golden Corral, Subway, Outback, and Starbucks.
Joel Carillet /

Gift cards are often a quick and easy way to ensure that your gift is appreciated and put to good use. They are also a goldmine for criminals.

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A recent study conducted by AmeriSpeak Omnibus for AARP found that slightly more than a third of American adults have been targeted by scams seeking payment by gift card and about a quarter of consumers in the U.S. have given or received a gift card that had no funds on it.

Gift cards are popular with scammers because they’re easy for people to find and buy and they have fewer protections for buyers compared to some other payment options. They’re like cash — once the card is used, the money on it is gone.

Experts are warning that cards might be compromised by criminals on retail racks before they’re taken off the shelf and then drained of their value as soon as the cards are activated. Criminals are also becoming more adept at convincing their targets that their gift cards are legal tender for any manner of financial obligation.

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The AARP Survey of U.S. Consumers concentrated its study on these two theft scenarios: Gift card payment scams which is when a criminal convinces a consumer to pay a fake financial obligation, by purchasing gift cards and sharing the numbers off the back, and zero-value gift cards which is when a consumer has given or received a card with no funds on it.

Of the 2,179 people polled in January and February 2022, over 30% of consumers in the U.S. were targeted by scams asking for payment by gift card and 23% of consumers have given or received gift cards that had no funds on them.

The survey also found that, while a third of consumers have been targeted by a gift card scam, surprisingly, younger adults are the target more often than older adults. Only 28% of those targeted were 50 years or older while 39% of consumers targeted were from the 18-49 age group.

But older respondents are more likely to want legislative action to fight gift card fraud. Among respondents 50 and older, 69% says they “strongly agree” that stricter action should be taken to protect consumers, compared to 54% of those aged 18-49.

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Seventy-three million Americans have experienced some sort of gift card fraud and the numbers are rising every year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported more than 64,000 consumer complaints and collective losses of $233 million in 2021 to scams involving gift cards as the form of payment. This is an increase of 88% from 2020.

There is a variety of common tactics a thief can use a gift card as payment scams. According to AARP, the most common are to pay a fee to claim a large prize or sweepstakes, lottery (15%), pay an upfront fee for a product or service (12%), and doing a favor for a friend or someone at work (12%).

Scammers are deceitful but they can also be convincing and sound “official,” so you must be cautious. They will also play with your emotions when you are in a vulnerable state.

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“A scammer knows that if they can get the target into a heightened emotional state, that person has a harder time accessing logical thinking,” says Kathy Stokes, Director of Fraud Prevention Programs with AARP. “If you get a communication that immediately makes you anxious worried or excited like, ‘Hey you won a million dollars in a lottery!’ that’s a sign.”

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About the Author

David Nadelle is a freelance editor and writer based in Ottawa, Canada. After working in the energy industry for 18 years, he decided to change careers in 2016 and concentrate full-time on all aspects of writing. He recently completed a technical communication diploma and holds previous university degrees in journalism, sociology and criminology. David has covered a wide variety of financial and lifestyle topics for numerous publications and has experience copywriting for the retail industry.
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