Scammers’ Local Success Mirrors 2021 National Trends

WASHINGTON DC – If the first nine months of 2021 are any indication, this year will end in millions of dollars lost on scams in which retailer gift cards were used as the preferred form of payment, the Federal Trade Commission reports. The problem is national in scope, but its potential victims have included residents of Douglass (Berks), Lower Pottsgrove, and Upper Providence townships.

In a new report issued Dec. 8 (Wednesday), the commission said consumers so far in 2021 have lost $148 million in such scams. Nearly 40,000 people claimed they used gift cards to pay a scam artist between January and October, and most often paid someone impersonating companies or government agencies. The 2021 amount to date is already higher than the total for all of 2020, the commission said.

Local police departments know the trend all too well.

Slightly more than a month ago, on Nov. 19 (Friday), Douglass (Berks) police said one of its residents was offered a three-month discount on a Comcast TV subscription if they paid for it using gift cards. The scammers even suggested their plastic of choice: from Apple, Google Play, or iTunes. The home owner was smarter than the thieves. He didn’t bite, and called the cops instead. The police department went public on the incident, hoping to ensure others also would avoid the ploy.

On March 1 (Sunday), Lower Pottsgrove police warned township residents of an updated “grandparent scam.” Someone pretending to be a victim’s grandchild or other family member calls to ask for money gift cards, supposedly to help after some emergency like an arrest or accident. The revised scam favors criminals even more. Now the “grandchild” or some other questionable authority boldly offers to send a courier to the victim’s home to pick up the loot.

In Upper Providence, the police department reminded its citizens that electric utilities want to be paid only in dollars, not gift cards, for their services. The notice was necessary after scammers called the elderly, claiming their power would be shut off unless they paid for overdue bills that didn’t exist.

Target gift cards emerged in 2021 as the most popular choice for scammers, according to the commission. They accounted for about $35 million in scam payments, its report indicated, more than twice that of any other gift card brand. The median amount lost when consumers paid with Target cards, $2,500, was higher than any other brand, too. Sadly, almost a third of victims lost $5,000 or more.

Scammers also instructed consumers to buy gift cards, regardless of the brand, from a Target store more often than any other location, the commission reported.

Since 2018, both the numbers of consumers filing reports in which gift cards were the form of scam payments, and the amounts they reportedly lost, have increased steadily. The commission said the median amount lost to scammers when consumers paid with gift cards rose during the three-year period from $700 to $1,000.

Photo by Guzmán Barquín via Unsplash, used under license

This story is one of several The Posts are publishing between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day that take a retrospective look at events and milestones of 2021, and a prospective look at what’s ahead in 2022.

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