By Julia Sandor and Kiersten Moss
Photo by Kiersten Moss

Consumers will start seeing new “STOP” signs at gift card displays in many local stores, part of an effort to fight a growing and costly fraud in which scammers – often posing as government officials – ask consumers to pay off a debt or penalty through gift cards.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich and members of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance recently announced the awareness program to educate and alert consumers about the increasingly common crime.

These thieves sometimes go as far as to threaten people with arrest or the loss of Social Security or other benefits, Brnovich says.

“We want people to pause before they buy a gift card and send that money to someone they don’t know,” he explains. “We want to remind people, and I keep saying this but it’s so important, that the government will never ask you to send a gift card or wire cash in order to pay the IRS, Social Security or anyone else.”

The warning, shaped like a stop sign, reads: “Gift cards CANNOT be used to pay ANY government agency.”
Brnovich says that consumers lose millions of dollars every year in these types of scams. Since January 2019, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office has received more than 230 consumer complaints related to gift card scams. In addition to government officials, scammers commonly pose as tech support, business investors or family members. Since 2018, fraud victims nationwide have reported paying nearly $245 million to scammers, with a median loss of $840, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

About one in four people who lost money to fraud and reported it to the FTC say they paid with a gift card. “Scammers prefer gift cards because they can get quick cash while staying anonymous,” according to the FTC. The most common gift cards requested late last year included eBay, Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens.

The program provides nearly 1,000 signs in grocery and convenience stores throughout the state.

If you paid a scammer with a gift card, you can file a consumer complaint with the Attorney General’s Office by calling 602-542-5763.

Julia Sandor and Kiersten Moss are reporters with Cronkite News.