gift cards
Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

Watch Out When Using a Gift Card — You Could Be Scammed

Q uite a few of my colleagues here at BoardingArea talk about purchasing and using gift cards, which — when offered at a discount of their total value — can be a good way to save money.

However, a person I know told me of an experience at a fast food restaurant within the past few days which prompted me to relay this cautionary tale, as you should watch out when using a gift card — you could be scammed.

Watch Out When Using a Gift Card — You Could Be Scammed

Here is the recounting of the incident in the words of that person:

“I drove up to the drive-thru area and the person taking the order was not as friendly or as welcoming as usual, simply stating ‘you can order when you are ready.’ I ordered two hamburgers and some ice water. The total came out to $2.12. I pull the car around to the window where the order is to be picked up. I am told the cost of the order, which was $2.12.

“I used a gift card which had $7.81 left on it before I handed it to her. Shortly thereafter, I received my order and a receipt; but I did not receive my gift card.

“‘Can I get my gift card back?’ I asked.

“‘Oh, there is nothing left on it’, she said.

“‘That is not what the receipt says’, I replied, flashing the receipt.

“She picks up the card and hands it back to me with no apology.”


My calculations suggest to me that that person was attempting to abscond with a gift card which still had $5.69 on it; and that caused me to wonder on how many other customers has this scam been perpetrated — as well as by how many people have attempted to engage in this fraudulent activity.

I also wondered how many customers took the word of those people at face value.

While $5.69 may not be a lot of money, it can sure add up: if this happened to 100 people in a day — or if it happened to you 100 times over the course of a few years as an example — that adds up to used gift cards worth a total of $569.00.

My advice is to always ask for your gift card back — even if the employee claims that it is empty. Ensure for yourself that the gift card is indeed empty — you can usually do that by calling the telephone number on the back of the gift card or by checking the balance via the Internet — and if it is, either refill it if that option is available; or dispose of it properly. If the gift card is comprised of a plastic which can be recycled, then ensure it is placed in a bin for refuse to be recycled.

If you do catch an employee of a company which you are patronizing attempt to perpetrate this fraudulent activity upon you, try to get as much information about that employee and report him or her to management of the company, as this action is no less than stealing money from a customer.

Thankfully, I have never personally had this happen to me — and I hope that it never happens to you. Ensure that you are not distracted and well aware of what is going on the next time you use a gift card — or a credit card, for that matter

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

  1. That happened to me once. I used a gift card at Walmart and after using it, the cashier threw my card in the trash can saying zero balance left. I specifically told her to give me back my card even if it is empty. She looked at me surprisingly and said you cannot load any money on to it once it is empty. When I came home and checked the balance, there was still some 8 $ balance left on it.

  2. Know the card number (at least the last few numbers). It’s an easy sleight of hand to hand you back a different card (zero balance).

  3. Yes this happened to my friend at forever 21 in san antonio. It was a gift card with a $100 balance and the clerk said there was zero balance on the gift card. They tried to keep the gift card but my friend asked for it back because she knew it was incorrect. She went home, and sure enough, there was a $100 balance on the card.

    1. Meh – Bernie Madoff did not live in a scummy part of town. Scum grows on the top and bottom of the pond.

  4. Another reason to keep a gift card, even with a zero balance, is in case of a return. Some merchants will only refund to the gift or debit card the purchase was made with.

  5. I bought two Hyatt e-gift certs from eBay one for $425 (value $500) and the second for $320 (value $400) using a credit card. I received the actual paper certificates via US mail and when I checked with Hyatt, the total value of $900 for both cards was there. Paper certs did not have an expiration date on them.

    Fast forward 5 months later when I checked out a Hyatt hotel stay and tried to use the paper certs I bought on eBay. To my huge disappointment (not to mention embarrassment), there was zero value in the cards! I paid with a CC and when got home I called and checked with Hyatt to be told these Hyatt certs don’t have any monetary value in them!!!

    $745 lesson! The seller claims she did not empty the certs when I demanded a refund. eBay says it’s been over 60 days which is their time limit for refunds. PayPal (which processes CC transactions for eBay) is unreachable, even on Twitter!!! Reported the crime to the US Postal Inspection service because part of the transaction occurred via US mail.

    So, if you planning to purchase these Hyatt e-certs on eBay, make sure you will be using them immediately, otherwise, you will be holding the bag like me!

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