Gift card scam proceeds closing in on $1 million in Tennessee

Jeff Bobo • Dec 21, 2018 at 6:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County had its share of gift card scam victims in 2018, but Sheriff Ronnie Lawson says there’s an easy way to avoid getting ripped off.

If someone you don’t know contacts you by phone, email or social media asking for money, especially via gift card or wire transfer, assume it’s a scam.

Just last month, a 72-year-old Hawkins County woman was bilked out of $1,600 by thieves who contacted her claiming she was owed $399 by Microsoft.

When the thieves emailed documentation that they had overpaid her by $1,600, they asked her to buy gift cards at Walmart in the amount of $1,600 and give them the numbers to settle the account.

Scams closing in on $1 million

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network reported that Tennesseans lost more than $943,000 through prepaid gift card scams in 2018. That’s a 44 percent increase from 2017, when scammers stole $653,709 from consumers.

“We just received a notice that scammers are calling people representing themselves as the Tennessee Sheriffs Association and seeking donations,” Lawson said. “It seems like just about every day we receive reports in my office about different type scams. All of the legitimate agencies have stopped soliciting donations on the phone because of these scams. Anytime someone calls you on the phone asking for money, especially if they want you to purchase gift cards or give out your credit card number, assume it’s a scam.”

Lawson added, “If they want you to go to Walmart and get a gift card or they want you to wire money to them, you should automatically be suspicious. When somebody says you need to make a small contribution to receive a million dollars, that doesn’t really make sense. That’s a con artist. But some people just don’t understand that, and that’s why these scam artists have been successful.”

When in doubt, contact law enforcement

Lawson said that when in doubt Hawkins County residents can call his office or their local law enforcement agency to check out these callers and determine if they are legitimate.

“Ignore any number you don’t recognize and let them leave a message, and you can tell right off if it’s a scam,” Lawson said. “If they want money from you and they tell you to go buy a gift card, it’s a scam. Another good tip is law enforcement agencies don’t call you asking for money, and they definitely don’t call you before they come and arrest you.”

Gift card scams increasing

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance’s Division of Consumer Affairs (TDCI) is warning the public about a new and increasingly common scam. Callers pretending to represent a federal or state agency contact consumers about a fictitious debt and demand payment in the form of a prepaid gift card or risk punishment. Consumers should remember that no government agency will ever demand payment in the form of a reloadable gift card.

“Gift card scams are growing as thieves learn they can take advantage of unsuspecting and vulnerable consumers,” said TDCI Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak. “I urge consumers to educate themselves in order to fight back against these unscrupulous individuals. If someone calls you demanding payment via a gift card, I urge you to hang up and report the incident to your local law enforcement authorities.”

Tips to avoid gift card scams

* A government agency will never ask for payment in the form of a prepaid gift card. If you receive a call from someone portraying him- or herself as a government official, but they ask for a gift card as payment, hang up.

* Never read or text someone the PIN number on the back of a gift card. The number is as good as cash in the scammers’ pocket. If you didn’t initiate contact, avoid giving personal or financial information over the phone.

* Reputable businesses, like technology support companies and shop-at-home services, don’t ask for gift cards as payment. If you’re being asked by a caller to pay for a product or service with a gift card, proceed with caution because it is likely a scam.

* If you’re buying gift cards as gifts, make sure to buy them from a reputable and known source.

* Always treat gift cards like cash and protect them as you would your wallet.

For more information on being a savvy consumer, visit tn.gov/consumer. You can also check what scams are being reported in your area, your state and across the country by accessing the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker.

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