Everything you need to know about gift cards scams in 2008

With the gift giving season in full swing it's no doubt that many consumers will turn to gift cards for hard to buy for friends or as last minute gifts. While there are many caveats regarding gift cards, including inactivity fees and the ease with which they are lost, sometimes they are the best gift for the situation. But you need to know how to avoid common gift card scams and issues.

One of the most prevalent types of gift card scams involves the activation process. An unscrupulous employee can swipe a card first and then swipe the gift card you are "purchasing". By swiping their card first, they end up with an excellent stocking stuffer while you're left with a hunk of plastic. This scam can be done by sleight of hand but many times the clerk will disguise the extra swipe as a step in the activation process.

To avoid being taken by a gift card activation scam make sure the number on your activation receipt matches the gift card the cashier hands you. You can also check the balance at another register or call the card balance hotline before you leave the store.Another gift card scam that is more common during the holidays is often referred to as a card not present scam or CNP for short. In this particular scam, thieves will copy down gift card information including the pin. After they've collected the information, thieves leave the cards on the shelf and wait. After a few days they begin checking card balances online to see if any of their cards have been activated. If they find that one has, they quickly spend the balance at the store's website.

The final warning isn't about a scam but rather the potential for gift cards to get lost. Even those of us who take care to keep gift cards safe will lose an occasional gift card amongst all the wrapping paper. It still burns me that I lost a $20 gift card to Best Buy two Christmases ago and I can't count the number of times someone has had to dig through a trash bag of wrapping paper after Christmas at my Grandparents' house!

The easiest way to avoid these gift card scams and decrease the likelihood of the recipient losing the card is to purchase the gift card online. By purchasing your gift card directly from the store's website you remove the chance of having it ripped off and often times can have the card shipped to the recipient for free. Many stores like Amazon.com and Gamefly.com will email the gift card to your recipient, making it quite difficult to lose the card.

Although buying online is the best bet, purchasing a gift card in the store doesn't have to be a harrowing experience. Best Buy, for example, takes many measures to prevent gift card fraud. Their gift cards come in packaging that covers both the full card number and the scratch off PIN. This makes it easy for clerks to spot gift cards that may have been tampered with. To top it all off, if you can provide proof of purchase Best Buy will replace the remaining value of any lost, stolen or damaged cards.

With a little research there's no reason a gift card can't be the smartest gift you buy this year. Just make sure you purchase from a store that is financially sound and has good gift card policies like those at Best Buy. Before you investigate the store don't forget to make sure the gift recipient actually shops at the store on a regular basis.

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