San Diego DA Summer Stephan on Gift Card Scams

As your District Attorney, I’m committed to increasing communication and accessibility between the DA’s Office and you, the community. One way I have been doing that is through this monthly column, where I provide consumer tips on public safety matters.

There’s no end to the ideas scammers come up with to cheat you out of money. While everyone can be a victim of a scam, seniors are particularly targeted and can be more trusting and vulnerable. A common practice is to prey on emotions and to create a sense of urgency. For example, the caller will say a grandchild is in trouble in another country and needs to be bailed out or will pretend to be from the IRS saying you owe back taxes. All you have to do is purchase gift cards and then provide the numbers on the back of the card. The gift cards can be from anywhere: iTunes, Amazon or any large retailer such as Walmart, Home Depot, or Target.

These hustlers often send elderly victims to the bank first to get cash and instruct victims to tell bank tellers that they need the money for a home remodel or to give their grandchildren as a graduation present. Once the victim has the cash, they are then directed to go buy the gift cards.

If you are asked to pay a debt via gift card, this is a scam. Here are tips to help you avoid getting billed:

  • If anyone calls asking for payment and claims to be from a bank or government agency, hang up and call back at the entity’s official number. Verify that the call was meant for you and that the official agency was in fact trying to contact you. If the person or organization isn’t immediately available when you call them, just wait until they are.
  • No government agency or business will require payments through a gift card. If you are asked to pay using a gift card, this is a scam.
  • Never make a payment by phone if you cannot confirm that the payment request is official and legitimate.
  • Some scammers pretend you have won a prize or sweepstakes but that you’ll need to pay the taxes via a gift card. This is a scam.

If you think that you were tricked though a gift card scheme, here are some steps you can take to report the scam and try to get your money back.

  • Call the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP to report the scam to which you may have fallen victim.
  • Call the Treasury Inspector General to report a phone scam at: 800-366-4484.
  • If you receive a call claiming to be from the IRS, you can report it by email at
  • If you know the company that issued the gift card, you can often report the scam directly to the retailer. They may be able to refund your money.

Although gift cards are easy and convenient gifts, they are nearly untraceable and are often used to launder money. You should never use a gift card to pay off any type of debt and should be suspicious of anyone asking you to do so. Remember, no legitimate entity will ask for a payment in the form of a gift card.

Gift cards are for giving gifts, not paying debts or transferring money.

District Attorney Summer Stephan has dedicated more than 29 years to serving justice and victims of crime as prosecutor. She is a national leader in fighting sex crimes and human trafficking and in creating smart and fair criminal justice solutions and restorative justice practices that treat the underlying causes of addiction and mental illness and that keep young people from being incarcerated.