It's an unsettling thought, especially at the height of the gift-giving season.
Crooks use a cell phone camera to record serial numbers from gift cards on store racks. They wait a few days, then periodically call a toll-free number to see if any of the cards have been activated.
If they have, the thieves go on a shopping spree online -- with your money.
While reports about that type of scam pop up more often this time of year, the head of the Retail Gift Card Association, Rebekka Rea, contends it's more of an urban legend than a major threat.
"Yes, the gift card scam with numbers does occur, but it's extremely minimal," she said.
Retailers have caught on to the scam and have been taking steps to combat it, she said.
For example, if someone calls to check a balance on a card that hasn't been activated, it can be a red flag and the retailer may freeze the card.
Even though the chances of being burned by this type of swindle are low, people can take steps to protect themselves, Ms. Rea said.
For the scam to work, the gift card must allow "card not present" purchases, such as transactions online or over the phone. So that means people who buy gift cards that can only be used in person don't have to worry.
Before buying any gift card, examine both sides of the package for tampering. And look closely at the card for an exposed PIN, an indication that a thief may have scratched off the coating to steal the number.
Not all cards have PINs, but more companies are moving toward them for added security, Ms. Rea said.
Buying a gift card at a store that keeps them behind the register reduces the chances of tampering, but doesn't guarantee protection since a store clerk could be the culprit.
People who receive gift cards should immediately register them with the issuer if that service is available, Ms. Rea advises. Buyers should keep their receipts.
Think twice about buying gift cards from a second party, such as Craigslist or an online auction site such as eBay.
Gift cards "actually are very safe and secure but you just need to pay attention," Ms. Rea said.
"Check the packaging and buy from a reputable merchant."
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