Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
What would you do if you got a cashier’s check in the mail, and were told you could cash it then keep what was left over — after buying gift cards and completing a consumer survey?
Some Hawai‘i residents cashed the check. Others reported it to police as a scam. The check was fake: those who followed instructions and bought and took pictures of the gift cards lost their money.
Gift cards are a convenient present for holidays, birthdays or as a thank you. But scammers, who sometimes call them “electronic vouchers,” are using them to con consumers into thinking they can be used to pay for overdue utility bills, back taxes or as payment for lottery winnings.
Honolulu Police said gift-card scams are becoming increasingly common; a recent AARP survey backs that up. Nearly one in three adults told us that they or someone they know was asked to purchase a gift card to pay a bill or some other obligation, according to the “Gift Card Payment Scams” report released by the AARP Fraud Watch Network (aarp.org/neverpaybygiftcard). That’s why the AARP Fraud Watch Network has launched an effort to raise awareness of gift cards and scams.
If someone asks for a gift card as payment, it’s likely a scam. One out of 10 people who took our survey admitted that they purchased a gift card after being asked by someone to pay a bill, another financial obligation or a fee to win a prize. The Federal Trade Commission reports gift cards have been one of the top payment methods in scams since 2018. In that time, consumers have lost $245 million by buying gift cards and sharing the information off the back. Yet our survey found one out of four people do not know or are unsure that it’s a scam when a stranger asks you to buy a gift card as payment.
AARP Hawai‘i is holding a series of forums on Saturdays in May and June to highlight how you can protect yourself and your family from gift card and other scams. The first is a Telephone Town Hall at 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 8, with Steve Levins, the director of the Hawai‘i Office of Consumer Protection, and U.S. Secret Service Agent Michael Gee. To participate, go to vekeo.com/event/aarphawaii-67145.
We’re also planning webinars in May and June with speakers including Brett Johnson, the former “Godfather of the Dark Web.” Johnson was one of the first people to set up an online store for criminals to buy and sell Social Security numbers and credit cards. Johnson was arrested and served prison time, but now is a consultant who helps law enforcement catch online criminals. He also works with AARP to teach consumers how to protect your personal information. To register for a Zoom link for our Saturday fraud webinars go to local.aarp.org/hi/ or the AARP Hawai‘i Facebook page, facebook.com/AARPHawaii, and click on Upcoming Events.
By raising awareness, we can stop the gift card scam.
Craig Gima is communications director at AARP Hawai‘i. He is an award-winning multimedia communicator with more than 30 years of experience. A Honolulu native, Gima spent nearly 19 years at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a variety of reporting, editing and online roles before joining AARP in 2016. Gima graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California.