Last minute holiday shoppers often rely on gift cards – easy to purchase and a present almost everyone welcomes. It pays to be careful, however. The ever-observant scammers have noticed that gift cards are popular during the holidays, and they do their best to ruin the experience for those who receive them. That’s the worst thing about gift card scams; they affect the person you are intending to gift. Since the National Retail Federation predicts gift card sales during this holiday season of $27.6 billion, a lot of money is at stake and a lot of scamming is underway. Here is your Better Business Bureau’s (BBB’s) look at the risks and precautions involved with gift card giving.

What the crooks are up to

The most frequent scam involving gift cards is the one where a crook acquires the PIN number for the card by removing it from the rack and tampering with the packaging. Then it’s replaced on the store rack, usually at the front of the display, in hopes it will be purchased soon and they can use the PIN to beat the real recipient to the use of the card. When they do, imagine your friend or loved one’s disappointment at being notified that the card is worthless.

Recently, there have been reports on BBB Scam Tracker regarding a website that says it will check the balance on a gift card. What these scammers really do is steal the balance. So if you give a gift card, tell the recipient to check the balance by only going to the site listed on the back of the card or to go to the company’s site where they should look for a link to their gift card page.

Some scammers sell gift cards on auction sites or other third party websites. The card may have no value at all, be expired or have been stolen. It could also be counterfeited. In some cases the seller may steal the number from the card and start using it up after it’s sold and before the new buyer has a chance to use it.

What you should do

• When you are buying a gift card, take the precaution of pulling one from the back of the store rack rather than the front. It’s a little less likely to have been tampered with. And speaking of tampering, look carefully at the card and its packaging to be sure it doesn’t appear to have been tampered with. Just an extra minute taken at the point of purchase can save whoever is getting your gift card a great deal of disappointment.

• If a retailer gives you the option of registering your gift card, do it. It’s much easier to track misuse that way.

• Check the card’s terms and conditions. Are there any fees? When is the expiration date? Is it limited to in-store use only?

• When buying from a lesser known company, check them out at bbb.org. Realize that a card purchased from a company that files for bankruptcy or goes out of business may be worthless.

• Save the receipt when you buy the card. Give it to the person getting the card so that if it is stolen, a replacement can be issued.

• Tell the recipient to use the card quickly just in case a scammer tries to beat them to it. Also, millions of cards annually are put aside and forgotten about and never used. (That’s why retailers love them!)

For more questions about giving or receiving gift cards, contact your BBB at (800) 856-2417, or visit our website at bbb.org.