Home >> News and Alerts >> eBay gift card scams are running wild. This is how to avoid them

eBay gift card scams are running wild. This is how to avoid them

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Here come the eBay gift card scammers — and just in time to steal your cash before the holidays. But the Consumer Rescue team is here too, warning you about these swindlers so you can avoid their trap.

We’ve received many pleas for help from distraught victims of various eBay gift card scams during the past year. They’ve lost hundreds and even thousands of dollars to this scheme. These consumers all want the same thing: to retrieve their stolen money from the anonymous predators who tricked them.

But is there any possible way to do that?

It’s a scam: AT&T is not trying to get the word out about eBay gift cards

Judi Shelton contacted our team after someone claiming to represent AT&T called her home, offering a great opportunity.

I received a call from a man who said he represented AT&T. He told me that if I paid half of my next six months’ DirecTV bill upfront using eBay gift cards, eBay would pay the other half. So I just needed to buy $450 in eBay gift cards to pay my half. The man on the phone said this promo was to get the word out about eBay gift cards, and it was time-limited.

When Judi didn’t immediately jump at the chance to save $450, the caller sweetened the deal. He could also offer her some free premium movie channels. Shelton mulled over the promotion. It sounded simple enough and seemed like a great way to save $450 and get some free TV stations. Deciding she might like to participate, Judi asked for instructions to seal the deal. The fake AT&T agent described the next steps she needed to take to redeem this limited time offer. At her earliest convenience, she should:

  1. Buy $450 in eBay gift cards.
  2. Call back the agent at his dedicated line
  3. Scratch off the silver tab and read off the numbers to the agent, who would apply the value of the gift cards to her DirecTV bill

Once all of that was complete, eBay would pay the rest of her DirecTV bill for six months, said the caller.

Not wanting to let the promo expire, Judi headed to her local eBay gift card retailer — unaware that she was falling for an expensive scam.

No free movies included.

eBay: “It’s always a scam if someone asks you to use gift cards to pay your TV bill.”

Soon Judi was back home with her newly purchased gift cards and ready to make her payment.

I purchased the eBay gift cards and called the agent back at the number he gave me. When the person answered, it sounded just like AT&T. Everything seemed very official, so I gave him my card information.

But after hanging up, Judi started to get a bad feeling. Something didn’t seem right. Within one hour of relaying the gift card numbers to the stranger over the phone, Judi called eBay. She asked the agent if the company was running a gift card promotion with AT&T.

The representative immediately confirmed her worst fear. The answer to her question was “no.” In fact, the agent explained, “It’s always a scam if someone asks you to use eBay gift cards to pay your TV bill.”

With a sinking feeling, Judi realized that she had willingly handed over the eBay gift card balance to a scammer. She asked the agent what she could do to get her money back. The news wasn’t good. As soon as the thief had acquired the numbers, he had redeemed the cards, as thieves typically do.

I told the eBay agent that I had the receipts and the (now empty) cards in my possession. So I asked her to prevent the scam from going through. I assumed they could stop the transaction and get my money back.

The representative told her that she could not stop the transaction. She recommended Judi report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission. Shelton spent a little time trying to reason with the eBay representative before she gave up and contacted our advocacy team.

Is there a way to get my money back from this thief?

When I read through Judi’s request for help, I already knew that her money was long gone. For years, we’ve been warning consumers never to share gift card numbers with strangers.

Criminals love gift cards because they’re just like cash. All the thief needs to do is convince you to share those digits under the silver foil. Their next move is to quickly — usually within minutes — spend the balance and disappear. Unless you’re dealing with an inept thief, their actions are nearly untraceable.

For its part, eBay is aware of a variety of gift card scams and warns its users in its terms of use and on the back of the gift cards:

[The eBay gift card] is only redeemable for items listed on eBay, when PayPal is accepted. Protect your gift card like cash.

If a gift card holder willingly shares the redemption code, they’ve violated the terms of use of the eBay card. In those cases, there isn’t anything eBay will do to try to track down the thief. Our team also can’t pursue gift card thieves or investigate crimes.

I explained to Judi why no advocacy tools exist that would allow us to mediate a refund in her case successfully. eBay will not refund a customer who gave the card numbers to a scammer. And, of course, the scammer is a criminal who certainly won’t come forward and return the cash. So that leaves us with no one with whom we could mediate the case.

Although we would love to be able to offer brilliant advice that would lead to the return of Judi’s $450, the fact is that no such guidance exists. Giving away a gift card code is the same as dropping money into a black hole or handing a wad of cash to a stranger who then runs off with it.

The bottom line is that the owner of the gift card is responsible for safeguarding the redemption numbers.

I gave Judi the bad news, but no sooner had I done that than a new case landed in our inbox. And the target of this eBay gift card scam had remained on the hook for much, much longer than Judi.

No, eBay will not ask you to buy gift cards to protect you against hackers

Mohammad Khan sent a desperate request for help while he was still in the middle of being scammed.

I need help! I bought a $25 gift card to buy a product on eBay. The transaction said invalid, so I called eBay customer service. The eBay agent told me he just discovered that hackers had invaded my account. He instructed me to buy $600 in eBay gift cards to protect against this scam. He said my information was being shared through the eBay servers across five states. Then, he said he could fix it, but this needed to be done right away.

Admittedly the scheme sounded very unusual, but Mohammad says he was sure he called eBay, and he assumed the agent was telling the truth. The longer he waited to send the $600 in gift cards, the more time the scammers on the eBay servers had to steal his information.

Mohammad didn’t realize it, but he was talking directly to the scammers. The number he called wasn’t eBay, after all. But Mohammad wouldn’t find that out until it was too late.

A prolonged and pricey gift card scam

After Mohammad gave the first “agent” the redemption code to his eBay gift cards, he was startled by the man’s response.

“He told me that I needed to buy another gift card,” Mohammad recalled. “This time I refused and I demanded all my money back. He told me to call back the next day and he would return my $600.”

Mohammad says that at that time, he believed he was speaking to an unscrupulous eBay agent. But to his surprise, the next day, yet another representative asked him to buy more gift cards to fix his problem. This person had an even more convoluted plan that would solve all of Mohammad’s issues and return his money.

He would resolve my issue, but he asked me to buy $400 in eBay gift cards to complete the process. I bought those then he texted me that he would transfer $1,525 to my credit card account, but I had to buy another $500 in eBay gift cards to pay him back. He said he sent $500 too much money to my credit card account. I just wanted to end this nonsense, so I followed his instructions. But no money showed up in my credit card account!

According to Mohammad, for the next 12 days, these scammers pretending to be eBay asked him for more and more gift cards. He refused further requests but hoped that they would just return his money. Finally, Mohammad says that he belatedly realized that he was not dealing with an eBay team but with a team of scammers.

“This band of imposters stole $1,525 from me!”

Mohammad was at his wits’ end when he reached out to our team.

I have concluded that a well-organized gang of eBay imposters who are operating to scam people through gift card and credit card theft scammed me. In a quite disappointed and desperate situation, I am approaching you for proper guidance to get my $1,525 back.

Unfortunately, as we’ve been forced to explain to every other victim of these gift card scams, there is no way for our team to track down Mohammad’s money. It was gone the moment he shared the redemption code with the band of thieves.

Since Mohammad had saved the phone number that he had regularly been calling, I recommended that he file a police report and provide the phone number to the investigators. That number appears to be a landline. The police may be able to do what our team can’t — track down the team of imposters and put an end to their thievery.

Avoiding gift card scams is easy if you keep these tips in mind

  • Treat gift cards like cash
    Scammers love gift cards because they’re almost like paper money. Those digits on the back of your gift card are all a thief needs to steal your balance in a nearly untraceable way. Never scratch off the protective covering on those numbers until you’re ready to redeem the card. Treat your gift cards like cash because that’s how the issuing companies view them. And it’s also how thieves view them. If you lose or reveal your gift card numbers to a stranger, you most certainly won’t get it back. (See: How to quickly lose $1,100 to the Walmart shopping scam!)
  • Gift cards are not to make offsite payments
    If anyone ever asks you to make an offsite payment using a gift card, you can be certain that you’re talking to a scammer — 100 percent of the time. Although eBay gift card scams are the focus of this article, the guidance remains true for all gift card brands. Gift cards are meant to buy yourself or a friend a gift, not to make a payment for a utility, to bail someone out of jail, pay a ransom, or to take care of any other emergency a creative thief might throw at you.
  • Read the terms of your gift card
    Reading the terms of your gift card will help you avoid falling victim to a predator. These conditions are typically readily available for your review on the back of the gift card. It’s important to note that if you violate any of the terms of most gift cards, the company can revoke them without giving you a refund.
  • Google the phone number
    Many gift card scams originate with a cold call from a thief. These scammers may claim to be AT&T, the IRS, eBay, Medicare, the police, or other well-known entities. Your caller ID might even display the official name of the company the callers claim to be representing. Don’t fall for it. Scammers can easily change the name that appears on your phone’s caller ID when they call. You can check the validity of any phone number by typing the number into your computer’s Google Search box. You’ll be able to confirm whether you’re dealing with an official company or not. The numbers that Judi and Mohammed were calling were not associated with eBay or AT&T. Had they done a Google search, that information would have quickly come to light and saved them both from becoming scam victims. 2024 Update: Before googling a number and relying on the result, please read this article about the scam call centers rising in the Internet search results.
  • Don’t buy gift cards from unauthorized sources
    Before buying gift cards for friends and family, make sure you’re dealing with an official seller. You can do that by visiting the website of the gift card company. (Here’s a list of approved retailers of eBay gift cards.) Purchasing cards from third parties or unapproved sellers can be a quick way to lose your cash — no gift included. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.