A favorite gift for the time-crunched or uncertain giver is the gift card, especially during the holiday season. Unfortunately, thieves have figured out a way to steal your gift card purchase and leave you sitting with a worthless piece of plastic.

They start by stealing the card number and the personal ID number. When a customer then purchases the card, the thief can use that information to make online purchases. By the time the recipient goes to use the card, the account balance has already been drained.

There are some things consumers can do to protect themselves, according to Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation:

  1. Be sure the gift card you buy is still in protective packaging. You can also ask the clerk for a card kept behind the counter.
  2. Check the back of the card to ensure the personal identification number has not been scrubbed off or otherwise tampered with.
  3. After your purchase, be sure to check the card number and pin on your sales receipt versus those on the card. The numbers should match.  If they don’t, you’ve purchased someone else’s card. Sometimes clerks may accidentally hand out the wrong card. Other times, it may be an unscrupulous clerk performing a bait and switch; keeping the activated card and handing you a dummy card.
  4. Buy gift cards only directly from the retailer. Avoid gift cards that are sold online or via auction sites such as e-bay, where fraud is rampant.