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Beware of growing scam involving gift cards

Beware of growing scam involving gift cards
Beware of a growing scam involving gift cards 03:58

Best Buy and AARP are joining forces to warn about a growing scam: imposters posing as a loved one, or even the IRS, and demanding gift cards be used for services rendered. The Federal Trade Commission said the number of these reported scams has jumped 270 percent over the last three years.

Trinidad Gonzalez is still trying to face the fact that scammers preyed on her emotions to pad their pockets, reports CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil. About three months ago, she said a man claiming to be her grandson called saying he was in jail and needed thousands of dollars immediately. He then put someone on the phone who posed as an attorney.

But the caller said he would make it easy for the 76-year-old grandmother. He told her to purchase gift cards from Walmart and give him the numbers on the back of the cards and warned her not to answer questions from store employees.

"I didn't say anything and they asked me, 'Do you know where this money is going to?' and I said it's going to my grandchildren," Gonzalez said. 

But the money never got to her grandchildren. That night, she figured out her real grandson was at home in Virginia. By that point, Gonzalez, who had recently lost her husband, was out $4,000.

"That was too much money, too much money for me to hand over to a stranger like that. I could've paid my property taxes … I could've paid all these things were coming up. To lose that amount of money just for the sake of losing it," Gonzalez said.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 26 percent of scam victims paid with a gift card between January and September this year. That's up from only seven percent in 2015.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called it a "huge issue."

"Typically with cash, you would have a meet-up somehow, and so they don't want to create that risk. And on a credit card, that's much easier to trace and easier for the bank to shut down the money flowing to the scammer. So gift cards largely are untraceable," Shapiro said.

To tackle the growing problem, Shapiro joined forces with New York's attorney general and three major retailers. Last month, Walmart, Target, and Best Buy announced steps to try to curb fraud. Among them: reducing gift card limits, restricting the redemption of gift cards for other gift cards, and enhancing employee training. Best Buy is taking it a step further, teaming up with the AARP in a new public service announcement.

"We certainly see more people start reporting it because we are empowering customers now not to be scared about talking about this. I think for a while there was some shame," said Best Buy spokesperson Boua Xiong.

Gonzalez said she was originally too embarrassed to tell her friends and family she was scammed. Now, she hopes her story will put others on high alert.

"It's very disheartening to know that you were made a fool of," Gonzalez said. "Now, looking back, I hope it helps somebody, somebody like me who thinks they're smart enough not to fall for it. And to question things more because I didn't question anything."

The FTC said if someone calls demanding you pay them with a gift card, don't. The cards cannot be used to pay for bail or taxes. If you think you've been scammed, you should report the fraud to the card company and then tell the FTC.

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