Gift cards on displayGift cards are the most popular and requested item this holiday season, but so too are scams designed to take advantage of unsuspecting shoppers. The National Retail Federation estimates we'll spend close to $25 billion on gift cards this year, and thieves are anxious to get a piece of the action.

Technology has made this easy. Thieves can buy a small, inexpensive handheld scanner and capture the codes embedded in the pre-loaded card before you even buy it. Once they have the code, it goes back on the rack and eventually into a shopping cart and later the hands of a gift recipient.Some stores sell cards without a value, that's determined and loaded at checkout. Even these types of gift cards are not immune. Thieves can copy down or scan the code, and call the 800 number on the card every few days to check the balance and redeem the card's value online.

Stripped gift cards are not the norm, the majority of shoppers will never encounter it, but avoid being a victim -- and disappointing someone with a crummy gift -- this holiday. Follow these tips when buying gift cards and give wisely.
  1. When buying a preloaded card, ask the cashier to scan it to make sure the full value is on it.
  2. Check that packaging has not been tampered with. Thieves can remove new, fully loaded cards and replace them with stripped ones.
  3. Buy cards stocked behind a cash register where thieves can't handle packages or scan the magnetic strips to get the code.
  4. Don't buy cards from auction sites or online sources you don't trust, like third parties. Buy direct from the retailer or gift card issuer.
  5. Take advantage of the season's many free shipping offers to buy gift cards direct from the retailer, thus eliminating the risk of fraud at the store level.
  6. Don't click on links. If you see a promotion on Twitter, Facebook or via an email, do not click the link provided: it may be a dummy site. Instead, type the retailer's url into your browser. If the deal is legit, you'll find it there and be able to access it with a provided coupon code.
  7. If possible, register the card on a retailer's Web site. This ensures you won't forfeit the value of the card of it's lost or stolen. And remember to access that site by typing in the url itself. Never trust links.
  8. Never provide personal information when registering or buying a gift card. Reputable retailers will not ask for it.
  9. Beware of companies posing as a retailer or issuer on social networking sites. Companies, and people, aren't always what they claim. Reputable retailers will direct you to an official Web site and provide a code redeemable for any discount.
  10. If it's free, forget about it. Sure there are plenty of great deals out there these days, but flat out free gift cards aren't one of them. Many retailers offered gift cards with a purchase on Black Friday, and we can expect these types of promotions throughout the holiday shopping season, but a free $500 gift card for "friending" a retailer on Facebook isn't one them.
Always keep receipts and when in doubt, move on and buy elsewhere. Check sites like Scam busters and the Better Business Bureau for news or warnings of recent scams. And remember, reputable retailers want your business, not the thieves'. If you suspect you've got a stripped gift card, contact the retailer directly and report the problem. Odds are good the store will do it's best to rectify the situation.

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