Digital Robberies – Online Gift Cards Scam

By Elvis Huff on October 11, 2017
5 minute read

When we turn on the morning news, it is not uncommon to hear about an overnight robbery.  Our thoughts may range from “I hope everyone is okay” to “Has the suspect been caught?” Another thought that undoubtedly crosses our mind is, “Where was the robbery?”, as we make mental notes about avoidance of that area. We may even think to share the story with our families and friends who frequent the area, in hopes of preventing someone else from becoming a victim.

But what about another form of robbery, that can’t be avoided the same way? One that doesn’t involve a weapon, that is rarely talked about on the news, and that we don’t know to share with our families and friends?

Digital robbery is a term I like to use for online scams. Online scams, or digital robberies, are occurring every day. One is sure to be taking place right now, as you read this. The loot is lucrative for the criminals, often more than that of traditional robberies. So why do we not push these to the top of the news stack? Why do we not like, share, re-post, re-tweet, message or call our friends when we read about these? The answer, in my opinion, is that we think we are too smart to fall victim to an online scam. Wouldn’t we see obvious signs if a scam involved us personally?

Not necessarily.  Digital robberies are not that obvious. Some frightening facts to consider:

  1. Online scams are difficult to prosecute criminally.
  2. Most victims do not even know they are being robbed.
  3. Victim’s monetary losses surpass that of traditional crimes.
  4. Victims often do not report the crime because of shame or embarrassment.
  5. Digital robberies impact every demographic.

Online scams, or digital robberies, are occurring every day. One is sure to be taking place right now, as you read this.

You may wonder how online criminals actually get a victim to send them money. Without the threat of imminent bodily injury or death, by use of a weapon, why would someone just hand over their money? Easy – convince a person that they are doing something good, and you can often get as much money as you want. Specifically, online criminals play on the emotions of the victim to get them to divulge their dollars. How do they do this? They create trust with the victim and establish a relationship through diversions. Such diversions usually appear as online sales, dating and friend relationships, online loans, or online charities. Certainly there are more categories, but these are the basic ones I see most often.

Once a victim is convinced, a system must be established for transferring dollars (without getting caught, of course). A popular way, which has been used a lot recently, is through the use of gift cards. The online criminal gets the victim to physically purchase gift cards, scratch off the numbers on the back, take pictures of the cards and send the pictures. You read correctly – the victim does all of the leg work, and gives the information to the criminal, all without threat of bodily injury or harm. Again, it involves emotions and trust. Look for a later blog post on that.

Indeed, we have to spread the awareness message about these types of crimes. Recently, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) released an announcement involving the frequency of digital robberies and the use of gift cards as a method of payment. That announcement can be found here and a full link in the footnotes.[1] If you do not know what the IC3 is, you will definitely want to read my post, “What is IC3 and why you should care?”.

From January 2017 to June 2017, the IC3 found that reported losses from digital robberies have already passed the $6 million mark. And that’s only the dollars that have been reported lost by victims. I wonder how much more has been lost that we do not know about.

The takeaway: if you are involved in anything online, and the person you have been interacting with asks you to buy gift cards, scratch numbers off, take pictures of the revealed numbers, and send those pictures to them, please stop and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can the transfer of money ONLY involve gift cards? Most legitimate transactions do not occur this way.
  2. Has there been any push on me to buy these gift cards immediately?
  3. Have I been told not to tell anyone what I am doing?
  4. Have I received the money from the person online to buy these gift cards?
  5. Has any mail correspondence been sent via priority overnight shipping? Not all mail sent via overnight is a scam, but scammers often utilize this as a way to get you to do something urgently.

If you answer yes to two or more of these five questions, then you need to STOP the transaction immediately, tell a family member or friend, and report everything to IC3 and your local police department.

We must do something to curb these losses. I’d welcome your thoughts!

Posted by Elvis Huff

Elvis Huff worked as an officer and network administrator for 12 years with the Lebanon Police Department and has also served as an adjunct professor in information systems at Cumberland University. Read More »

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