Gift cards are a favorite method used by scammers to relieve victims of their money.

Gift cards are readily available from many locations, including convenience stores, dollar stores, big box retailers, supermarkets and pharmacies. These stores market many brands of cards, such as iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Paypal, as well as cards specific to retailers, such as Best Buy, Walmart or Home Depot.

This week, while investigating a romance scam, I learned of someone sending cards from Nordstrom, a luxury department store, to his online girlfriend.

Probably the feature crooks like best about these cards is that you don’t need physical possession of the card to use it. Each card issues with a unique serial number which can be revealed by scratching off a strip on the reverse of the card. Knowing that unique serial number allows anyone with an online account to use the funds from the account anywhere they are accepted in the world, regardless who is actually holding the card.

For criminals running a scam, all they need to do is convince their marks to buy these cards, load money on them, and reveal the numbers to the criminal. Often, the scammer asks the mark to scratch and reveal the serial number, and then photograph the card, and electronically send the photograph. That image with the serial numbers is enough information to allow a crook to zap the money off the card – very quickly.

I learned just how quickly and how sophisticated the market for the funds on these fraud-generated cards are this week while investigating a grandparent scam.

A Clinton woman received a call from someone posing as her grandson, whom police jailed. The grandson needed bail money in the form of $500 in Best Buy cards.

Our grandmother victim went to a Casey’s convenience store, bought the cards and loaded the money as directed. She called the “bail bondsman” back and read him the serial numbers.

This happened at 3:30 p.m. By 4:30 p.m, the “bail bondsman” had posted the gift card numbers for sale on an online trading platform using Bitcoin as the payment method.

A 17-year-old youth living near Houston, Texas, who regularly bought Best Buy gift cards , saw them offered for sale and bought them, at a discount, paying by Bitcoin

The 17-year-old, after obtaining the serial numbers, logged into his Best Buy account and used the stolen funds, along with other funds from other cards, to order laptop computer and accessories, which he later sold through Facebook

So, within an hour, money which changed hands at a Casey’s in Clinton, Iowa, financed an electronics purchase in Houston, Texas. No wonder scammers love these cards.

Anytime you are communicating with someone you don’t know, either by text, phone, email or social media, and they want you to buy gift cards, it’s a surefire scam. Stop the communication immediately, and notify law enforcement.

In this case, we were able to track down the young man who made the Best Buy purchase. He agreed to return the money to the Clinton grandmother. Such a happy ending is all too rare.

Contact Seniors vs. Crime. Let me know about scams, fraud or other crookedness you run across. Most of what I learn, I learn from you. Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, 563-242-9211 extension 4433, or email me at randymeier@gapa911.us