Did You Buy Gift Cards for the Holidays? Beware of ‘Card Draining’ Scam, Experts Warn!

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Don’t fall victim to a gift card draining scam this holiday! Here’s what to know.

hand holding a warning about gift card scams

Beware of gift card scams this holiday season.

Gift cards are one of the most popular holiday gifts and stocking stuffers, but if you’re planning on gifting a few this year, be alert.

Gift card scams happen at all national retailers, usually from displays set out to show the gift cards. You may most recently, however, have heard Target in the news related to these scams.

store display of target gift cards in various designs

In California, investigators discovered that bar codes were being removed from Target gift cards and then replaced with fraudulent bar codes. The scammers then would seal the gift cards back up, and return them to the rack. In other situations at other retailers, scammers may also use a magnetic stripe reader to steal the barcode.

When honest paying customers buy the tampered gift card, the cashier unknowingly loads the funds to the fake bar code. The scammers then jump in and use the balance – they even use computer programs to alert them that they’ve been activated.  As a result, your giftee’s gift card balance could end up with a zero value when they go to use it. 😞

Are you buying gift cards this holiday? Here’s our advice…

No matter where you are shopping this holiday season, it is best to be alert when purchasing gift cards.

To avoid fake activation websites, consider activating your card by phone.

If you notice the package of your gift card appears to be ripped or tampered with in any way, notify a store employee or manager of the gift card issue and get a new one, or opt to send an eGift card instead.

Don’t want to take the risk of buying a gift card? Try these other gift ideas instead.

About the writer:

Kara is a writer and photographer from the Midwest. Her creative work has appeared in various publications over the past decade. With a background in finance, she loves to be money-savvy.

Join The Discussion

Comments 24

  1. Sunflower

    Thanks. Great advice. I experienced this with the Apple gift cards in November 2023. I had three $100 gift cards with the numbers missing. Fortunately, I was refunded the purchase price and was allowed to purchase them again at the store. After my purchase, the manager was kind enough to wait as I loaded them to my Apple account. This is not always the case. No refunds means taking it up directly with the merchant. I love the Apple gift card promotion. This year I opted to purchase the gift cards online.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      You’re welcome, Sunflower. 💞 Very sorry to hear you had a similar experience with missing funds/numbers but glad you were able to get a refund and get it worked out! 🤗

  2. Mommy2Bear

    Please don’t put the ripped/tampered giftcard back on the rack because someone else can become the victim. Maybe notify a store manager or associate instead.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Great suggestion. We’ll get that bit of information updated to reflect this a little more clearly, Mommy2Bear. 💕

  3. Dee

    Related note: I always write the balance of the gift card on the card in Sharpie marker. Once, my spouse was buying $25 worth of stuff using a $10 gift card at Target. He got his receipt and the amount was still $25. The cashier said the balance on the card was empty and had tried to keep the gift card for himself. We called the manager. Employee was fired later that day as he attempted this scam on others. After that, I got out the Sharpie.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Thanks for sharing the Sharpie tip, Dee. I like to do this also. 🤗 Glad you were able to get the transaction sorted out in-store before leaving. 💕

  4. berry

    People are horrible. I just can’t

  5. tinacv

    This happened to me in November 2023. Had a $50 Target gift card, purchased in store in November. went to use it and it had a $0 balance. Everything was sealed.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Oh bummer! Sorry to hear that, tinacv. ❤️ Hoping you may have had the gift/purchase receipt to show as proof to try to sort it out. 🤞

  6. Debbie

    Yes the scam is real one of the worse gift cards are the Visa cards! I bought one last Aug for 100.00 for a birthday gift. When he went to use it the card was invalid to use. Contacted Visa and they wanted the receipt, copy of my license copy of card and it had to be faxed! It took weeks to get a new one and when I did they deducted another 6.00 activation fee and when! Unreal. So I lost almost 15.00 just to get new one…never again a Visa gift card. I bought that at a Koeger’s store and it wasn’t even a holiday. Be very careful!!

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Aww, very sorry to hear about the troubles with the Visa gift card Debbie. So glad you kept your receipt though as proof of purchase and you were able to get it replaced for the recipient with the full value. ❤️ Thanks for sharing about your experience.

    • Lynn

      You can purchase those through your bank. Much much safer.

  7. ienotaryservices

    Yes, a friend gifted me a $25 GC from Starbucks it was zero balance when I tried to add it to the app 😔 don’t know if Starbucks would reimburse it ….

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Oh no! SO sorry! Hoping your friend might be able to provide you proof of purchase or a receipt to contact Starbucks with. 🤞 Good luck!

  8. Debbie

    Actually did not get full value back only 94.00 so lost 6.00 from original expense on 1st visa card purchase (activation fee) then they deducted it on the replacement card and had to pay 4.00 for the fax. Others also have been scammed by the Visa cards, they are actually the worse cards to purchase for gifts.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Oh bummer! 😢 Thanks for the clarification, Debbie. 💕

  9. tracy

    Scammers are also targeting the pre-paid phone cards.

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Eek! Thanks for the warning, Tracy! ❤️

  10. nldaadmin

    I got 2ea, $50 Lowe’s ($100 total) cards from Amazon just a week or so ago, on a promo of some kind. I used some Discover points plus regular credit card payment to pay for them, which ‘earned’ me some more credits, plus there was a $10 Amazon credit given to me.
    The cards arrived a couple days later, and I noticed that the zip cardboard strip on the back of the physical card packaging had been unzipped on both card holders. I didn’t like the looks of it, but I just put the cardboard strips back in place, and they are stashed away, awaiting wrapping now.
    The actual cards in their packaging have not been given away yet, so I don’t know if they have been compromised. But at least Amazon said something in advance about the partially-opened cards, and I have no doubt I can get a refund or replacement from them if necessary, since I have all the Amazon documentation, and the original posting. Keeping my fingers crossed….

    When I checked my Amazon digital receipt, here’s what it said:
    Design Name: Traditional
    Redemption: Instore and Online
    It’s the perfect gift for any occasion.
    No returns and no refunds on gift cards.
    Please note, the back of the packaging may appear to be removed as the enclosed gift card needs to be activated.”

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      Thanks for taking a few minutes to share about your gift card purchases, nldaadmin. Hoping that all is OK on the ones that will be gifted! 🤞❤️ Good to know about Amazon’s packaging details too. 🙌

  11. Shopper

    KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS. This happened to me with a $100 Target gift card. Target did replace the card after calling the number on the back, sending receipts and images, etc. But it was a hassle and stressful not knowing if I was getting my money back. I’m completely done buying gift cards. Makes teacher gifts a little harder.

    • Amber (Hip Sidekick)

      Oh wow! SO glad you could get a new card! Thanks for sharing how they were able to help you! 💞

  12. Julie

    Always write the gift card amount on the cards when gifting and if possible attach the receipt. I once was gifted a Visa GC and the gifted wrote $75 on the card. When I went to use it, it said the value was only $50. Since it was my in-law that gifted it to me, I asked if it was an error. He gave me the receipt and I went to the store and a manager credited the entire $75 to the card. I really don’t understand how the receipt can reflect $75 but only $50 gets loaded to the card??

    • Jessica (Hip Sidekick)

      That is strange, Julie, but so glad you were able to get full credit for the gift card with the receipt. 🤗 Thanks for hopping into the comments to share about your gift card experience!

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