If bar code is visible on gift cards you’re buying, reconsider your purchase, experts say

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A metro man said his parents fell victim to not one but two scams. Fox 4 worked to learn exactly what happened and how you can avoid becoming a victim.

“My mom said that somebody called my dad and said he was in jail," Rob Gresty said, "and my dad talked to him, and he needed $4,000.”

His parents live in Pennsylvania and fell victim to what’s known as "the Grandparent Phone Scam."

Convinced his grandson was in jail, Gresty's father bought $4,000 in gift cards. He then called the scammers back and gave them the barcode numbers. The money was spent minutes later halfway across the country.

“It was puzzling to me how a person could buy a gift card in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, with $4,000 in cash, but then that card could be used hours later in Ocala, Florida,” Gresty said.

We’ve all heard of phone scams that prey upon the elderly and the unaware. But what Fox 4 showed former F.B.I. agent Michael Tabman was a surprise even to him.

“This is not a good idea, this exposure right here,” he said.

The scam goes like this: The bad guys take a picture of the gift card, knowing eventually that gift card will be purchased. They go to websites to create a barcode with that stolen number, print it out and take it back to a self-checkout.

Tabman said retailers need to change their packaging.

“Why sell this if you're going to accept this?" he said. "This stinks of fraud. If they accept this, they're going to have to revisit it.”

“You're first upset because your parents just got scammed $4,000," Gresty said. "Then it's personal because they did it to my parents.”

Not only is the money gone, but so is Gresty’s trust in the gift card system.

“I will never buy a gift card off the rack again,” he said.

This can happen at any store with exposed gift cards and self-checkout lanes.

There is a bit of security at Target in how you check your gift card balance. It must be done at a register with a Target employee. If you check your balance online, you must have the code underneath the silver-marked area.

Fox 4 asked Target for more information. This was the company's response:

"Target is committed to providing a secure environment for our guests and team members. As a part of that commitment, we take a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to preventing theft and fraud that includes innovative programs and partnerships with local law enforcement, technology and team member training. We’re aware of the “Grandparent scam,” which unfortunately is an issue that’s happening across retail.

As we’ve become aware of this type of scam, we’ve communicated with our team members and provided resources for our guests. We’ve seen cases where Target team members were able to stop these scams and assist our guests, which we’re proud whenever we see. (Like this example.)

We have limits in our stores of the dollar amount that guests can place on gift cards. And we have a website dedicated to help guests avoid gift card fraud, understand common gift cards scams and have the resources that they need. The website is here.

From our website, here are the tips we recommend to help avoid gift card fraud:

  • Target GiftCards can only be used at Target stores and on Target.com. No legitimate government entity, including the IRS, Treasury Department, FBI or local police department, will accept any form of gift cards as payment.
  • Other businesses do not accept payments in the form of Target GiftCards. For example, you will never be asked to pay your utility bills, bail money, debt collection and hospital bills with Target GiftCards.
  • Do not purchase or sell Target GiftCards on online market places.
  • If you get a call from a stranger who says that a loved one is in trouble and they ask you to provide gift card numbers to help them, hang up and contact your loved one directly.
  • Don’t always trust your caller ID. Scammers can manipulate a caller ID to look like a legitimate company or government agency
  • Don't purchase a gift card if it appears that the packaging has been altered or manipulated. If you have questions about a gift card, ask someone who works at that store.
  • Don't click on or respond to online ads or websites offering free gift cards. These are often scams.
  • If you think you’ve been the victim of a gift card scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at ftccomplaintassistant.gov."