Last Updated Apr 14, 2010 2:50 PM EDT
"Gift card and coupon scams are exploding on the web," said Rob Carpenter, chief executive of FriendGiftr. "It's disconcerting for the companies that offer real deals."
This latest Facebook scam comes on the heels of the U.S. Attorneys office in New York charging a former employee of Continental airlines for selling fake airline vouchers. Victims, who paid between $500 and $600 each, were told they could use the coupons to travel anywhere in the world. The alleged crook bought a few real tickets for a couple of lucky stiffs who wanted to claim travel early in the scam, the rest of the more than 1,700 victims were out of luck.
These cons are just the tip of the iceburg. Past gift card cons invited involved bogus $250 and $500 cards to Best Buy and Target. Consumers complain they've bought fake concert tickets--or mass duplicated tickets--too. Experts report that even grocery coupons are being forged at an alarming rate. All of the cons put consumers at risk for everything from credit card fraud, to computer hacking to simple disappointment.
How do you keep it from happening to you? Spot the con before getting taken. Here's how.
Know who you're dealing with. Many fake coupons photo-shop away the name and contact information of the company making the offer. That's a clear warning sign, according to CouponSherpa.com, a site that offers grocery and retailer coupons.
If you're buying a gift certificate, make sure you're confident in the site that's selling it is legitimate. How? Ask friends if they've used it; click on the "about us" to see how long they've been in business; and make sure they offer contact information and a phone number.
Look for bar codes and expiration dates: Coupons include a bar code that transmits information about the deal to the retailer accepting the slip. And they always have set expiration dates, according to CouponSherpa. Look for both. If one is missing, it's probably a fake.
Start small. If you're buying a coupon or gift certificate but not 110% certain that you're dealing with a legitimate offer, only spend an amount you're not going to miss--$5 or $10, for example. Leave the "swapped" $150 gift certificates for another sucker.
Contact the retailer. Let's say you've gotta buy tons of household goods and you're ever-so-tempted by the $150 Bed Bath & Beyond gift card that somebody's selling for $50. Before you bite, call the retailer and ask how you can verify how much cash is on the card. Some unscrupulous sellers will peddle a "used" card, said Carpenter. So that $150 card might be used up, or only have $1.50 left to spend. If you can't verify the amount left on the card, pass it by.
The same holds true for concert tickets, which are sometimes "resold" to dozens of different buyers. Call the venue or the marketing company (think Ticketmaster) to find out how you can determine that your ticket is legitimate.
Don't be a dope. We all know that companies do promote their businesses, sometimes even by giving stuff away. But legitimate marketing deals almost always come with a string attached that makes some sense. A retailer will give you a $10 gift certificate, for instance, if you to buy $50 in merchandise--that's the equivalent of giving you 20% off. But you had to buy something to get it.
You know that Ikea is not really going to be giving away $1,000 in merchandise (to people who aren't spending four times that amount) just because you're willing to become a "fan" on Facebook, right? Don't suspend your reasonable disbelief just because you want something for nothing. If you do, you're likely to get a computer loaded with malware and give identity thieves the keys to your financial life.
Likewise, when somebody's selling a $100 gift card on Craig's List for $20, you've got to ask why. You might try to justify it by saying that the person could have gotten a card for a store that's not their favorite. But keep thinking. Gift cards are the perfect "re-gift." Why would somebody give it to you, practically for free, when they could use it as a birthday gift for somebody who does like that store--or sell it to a friend for close to face value?
Your own good sense is your best defense.