People are fighting back against gift card scammers. Here’s how


By Ian Sherr

Four years ago, Jim Browning decided he’d had enough. Like so many of us, he gets incessant calls from scammers, disrupting his day with efforts to trick him into giving them money. But instead of just being annoyed and ignoring his phone, Browning chose to fight back.

He began to study scammers’ tactics and learned that many of them rely on the same script and use most of the same remote control software tools. And he used his skills working on computers by day to program a virtual PC — think of it like a safe and secure copy of a machine running in an app on his real computer. Once a scammer connected with his virtual PC, thinking they’d found another victim, Browning would pretend to struggle with his internet connection as he quietly took remote control of the scammer’s computer.

“They think nothing’s gone wrong,” he says.

From there, he’d download their data, including lists of victims, notes and personal files. He’d also use that connection to the scammer’s computer to listen to their conversations through the phone app they use, sometimes following, and interrupting, a scammer in real time trying to cheat someone. So far, Browning estimates he’s disrupted more than 1,000 scams, spending up to 12 hours per week on the task. Before our chat, Browning was consoling a victim he’d just alerted of another scam he was tracking.

“I’ll never know for sure exactly what the impact of what I’m doing is, but I think it’s still worth doing,” he said. “Even if the police do nothing, which they mostly do, I’m doing something.”

He has his work cut for him. The world of online scams has exploded in recent years — in April, a Harris Poll survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by the app Truecaller found one in three people said they’d fallen victim to a phone scam, and more than half of them said it happened on more than one occasion. The lost money equates to an estimated $29.8 billion last year, a staggering jump from the $19.7 billion Truecaller estimated for 2019. The scope of gift card fraud, where scammers trick people into buying gift cards and handing over the numbers, is especially difficult to pin down because many victims don’t report the crime. They’re often embarrassed, and unlike identity theft, where there are strong consumer protections in place, there’s almost no way to get their money back.

“They don’t really know who’s holding onto these gift cards,” said Mark Roberts, who helped co-found the startup Leverage in Southern California nearly two decades ago. Back then, the company encouraged people to register their gift cards through his service. In exchange, the site would help people track, manage and swap the cards with other users. The retailers he worked with were aware of gift card scams even back then, Roberts added, but it was small enough that “they mostly didn’t really care.”

Now the fraud has gotten so big that some people’s righteous anger has boiled over into action. Over the past couple of years, a growing cohort of scam baiters have found success using YouTube and other video sites to share their exploits. Attracting millions of subscribers, they lure unsuspecting scammers in, waste their time, take their files and disrupt their operations. Browning and other scam baiters have attracted so much attention that even though many scammers seem to know their names, they also know they’re scraping just the tip of the iceberg. But if they can disrupt even a fraction of the frauds out there, Browning says, anyone keeping a scammer distracted means protecting another victim.

“I consistently stop scams nearly every single day,” he says.

Browning began uploading videos to YouTube initially as an easy way to provide evidence to internet service providers and law enforcement. He’d highlight the scams using screen recording software to show how the scams work, with a methodical commentary in his low, strongly accented voice. He hoped his proof would spark internet disconnects and police raids. But over time, he attracted more than 3.5 million subscribers, with notable jumps since the pandemic.

Gift card scams are growing, and we’re all paying the price

Gift cards have become a popular way for scammers to launder money. (CNET)

By Ian Sherr

The scams start out innocently enough.

Maybe a phone call from someone who says he works for Amazon, claiming he noticed someone hacked into your account. Maybe someone who says she works for Microsoft, offering a refund for a computer security service you bought a few years ago that stopped working.

Lisa Hernandez was trying to reach, the dating site, to cancel her account when it happened to her. The 50-year-old single mother of four had signed up for the service but decided she didn’t want to stay with it.

She searched on Google for a customer service number to call. What she found instead was a fake website, built to look legitimate but with a phone number that connected her to a scammer posing as Match customer service. Kevin, the man on the other end of the line, said he could help. First, though, he told her she needed to install a program called TeamViewer, which allowed him remote control of her computer.

He then directed Hernandez to log into her bank’s website. “We’re going to directly refund you your money,” he promised and asked her to fill out a computer-generated form for her refund of $93. Instead, Kevin set his scam in motion by manipulating the code on her computer to make it look like he had deposited $9,000 into her bank account instead, effectively doubling her savings.

The only way to fix the mistake, he told her, was to buy gift cards with the extra money she’d received and give him the numbers. Then he could put the money back into Match’s bank accounts and all would be settled. “I need you to go to the store to get Target cards,” she remembers him saying. Otherwise, he’d lose his job. She did as he asked, giving him nearly $9,000 worth of gift cards.

Moments just like this happen to tens of millions of Americans every year. While it’s easy to assume most victims are elderly, surveys suggest it’s much broader. Victims are old and young, rich and poor. Some people get scammed multiple times. Some victims have family members who fight fraud for a living. It’s struck my family. Likely, it’s happened to yours, too.

When you think of computer crimes, identity theft usually comes first to mind. That’s because it cost Americans a staggering $56 billion last year, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. But it tends to feel more like an inconvenience than theft, because you usually get your money back thanks to a nearly half-century-old law designed to protect consumers from any “unauthorized” credit charges. The fees we pay help cover the losses to that fraud. But it’s different with gift cards — they have no such legal protections. When a victim shares the card number with a scammer, they’ve effectively authorized its use. Even identity fraud insurance, which would cover ID theft in the case of a data breach, often doesn’t apply when you’ve given the information willingly.

“If someone coerces you, then you’re out of luck,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at AARP.

It’s impossible to fathom how much money these scammers have taken. Many victims don’t report the crime to authorities, often because they’re embarrassed and quickly learn the hard truth that they’re unlikely to get their money back. So when the Federal Trade Commission counted more than $245 million in money lost to gift card scams since 2018, most experts said the actual number is likely many multiples worse than that.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said John Breyault, vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League.

The anecdotal data suggests he’s right. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, for example, said it receives more than 2,000 complaints each day about all sorts of internet scams, from fraudulent business impersonation to fake romances to gift card scams. All told, the FBI tallied $4.2 billion in fraud losses reported by victims last year.

Some stores put up signs next to gift card racks and checkout counters warning about fraud. Others say they’re training employees to spot potential victims. But they aren’t doing much else. “The business incentive in the gift card space is for these cards to be used with as little friction as possible,” Breyault said. “They don’t want to get into the way of someone buying a gift card and buying a Coke on the way out.”