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Thieves Put Gift Cards in the Bullseye Until Thwarted by Bad Elves

Published: December 22, 2023 on our newsletter Security Fraud News & Alerts Newsletter.

It’s a time of giving. It’s also a time of thieving. In a video, Jim Stickley of Stickley on Security and Paige Hanson at Secure Labs discuss a recent sting operation from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department that resulted in the arrest of a person stealing gift cards from Target stores. These thefts are happening all throughout California and around the country. Yes, those ever-popular items we buy to give people when we have no idea what they’d like for a gift, so we just let them buy it for themselves. Had this criminal and others succeeded with their dastardly plans, it could have cost consumers up to $2.89 million!

One criminal was caught red-handed by officers and tackled to the ground. You can see a video of the actual incident outside a Target store in Sacramento. On his person were around 200 gift cards stashed under his jacket. In his vehicle, several thousand more.

Stickley described how it works.

Step 1: Thief steals stacks of cards off the unsecured racks in the stores.

Step 2: Thief carefully slices open the bottom of the cardboard sleeve and opens it up.

Step 3: Thief removes the sticker covering the PIN code.

Step 4: Thief records the relevant information for using the card.

Step 5: Thief reseals everything back up carefully, making it nearly impossible to tell the cards have been tampered with.

Step 6: Thief returns stacks of tampered cards to the stores for customers to purchase.

Step 7: Consumer purchases cards and thief gets funds sent to his account elsewhere leaving gift card empty.

Stickley and Hanson provide some advice on how to avoid being a victim of gift card scams like this.

First, don’t buy them in the stores, if possible. Go online. That’s the best and safest way to make sure the fund gets to who is intended. Also, keep the receipt until you know for sure that the card was not tampered with. Next, if you do want to buy it at the store, try to get one from behind the counter. Those are less likely to have been operated on.

If you’re going to send a physical card in the mail, don’t drop it into one of those blue USPS mailboxes on the corner. They are massive targets of theft. Instead, hand it to your mail carrier or take it to the post office directly, depositing it inside if possible.

If you do buy one off a rack, check it very closely for evidence that someone may have taken a razor blade to it. If it has scratches on the bar code or isn’t glued together straight, it should be deemed suspect.

Lastly, while it might be awkward to do this, be sure to tell the recipient that if there are no funds on it to let you know immediately. Inform them of this scam if necessary. You can return the card to the store and get the funds back.

The Sacramento Sherriff’s Department said this scam is likely going on all across the country. It’s also not part of a ring, for the most part. In fact, they released statistics about their sting operation called Operation Bad Elf. It found that 99% of the thefts were done by individuals.

While their sting and this arrest was at a Target Stores and they identified it was happening at many Target stores, it’s not limited to Target gift cards or stores. They also found Apple Gift cards, Uber cards, and a number of others. They also said this is happening in many other stores like Home Depot and Walmart.

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