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‘Tis the season for scams: How to avoid falling victim to online con artists

As we head into the holidays, scammers are out to take advantage of the giving season.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, nearly 3 million Americans fell victim to imposter and online scams in 2021.

Palm Desert resident, Ruth Hill, remembers receiving an email from who she thought was a long-time friend she hadn’t spoken to in years.

“This is her email. She even gave me her email. So I didn't think anything about it," Hill said.

Hill said she received this email from her friend.

“This lady does this. She takes care of people. So this was not unusual for me to think that one of her clients had a birthday. And she wanted to give her a gift card. That's very normal. Very normal," she explained.

After sending them the gift card, Hill tells us they repeatedly asked for more. They claimed they never received it. Trying to help her friend out, Hill continued to send them.

“She said, Well, can you do another? So I did another one," she added, "I did this four times. What's wrong? I know this is not right. Why did my card get denied?”

It wasn’t until the next day, she realized this was a scam.

“After about the fourth time, I was like Okay! You got had, Ruth.”

Hill is just one of the millions of Americans every year targeted by scammers. Gift card scams, like the one Hill fell victim to, is just one of their schemes.

The Federal Trade Commission says gift cards are popular with scammers because they’re easy for people to find and buy.

The FTC says you can spot the scam if:

  • The caller says it’s urgent. They say you have to pay right away or something terrible will happen. They want to scare or pressure you into acting quickly, so you don’t have time to think or talk to someone you trust. Don’t pay. It’s a scam.
  • The caller usually tells you which gift card to buy. They might say to put money on an eBay, Google Play, Target, or iTunes gift card. They might send you to a specific store — often Walmart, Target, CVS, or Walgreens. Sometimes they tell you to buy cards at several stores, so cashiers won’t get suspicious. And the caller might stay on the phone with you while you go to the store and load money onto the card. If this happens to you, stop. It’s a scam.
  • The caller asks you for the gift card number and PIN. The card number and PIN on the back of the card let the scammer get the money you loaded onto the card. Don’t give them those numbers. It’s a scam. You’ll lose your money, and you won’t be able to get it back.

If you do end up buying the gift card, the FTC urges you to notify the company you bought them from right away.

That's exactly what Hill did.

“Call it right away because the guy told me right away he said no, you didn't do this. Don't let anybody say you did this. This is a scam.”

Here are more tips from the FTC to avoid scams:

1. Scammers PRETEND to be from an organization you know.

Scammers often pretend to be contacting you on behalf of the government. They might use a real name, like the Social Security Administration, the IRS, or Medicare, or make up a name that sounds official. Some pretend to be from a business you know, like a utility company, a tech company, or even a charity asking for donations.

They use technology to change the phone number that appears on your caller ID. So the name and number you see might not be real.

2. Scammers say there’s a PROBLEM or a PRIZE.

They might say you’re in trouble with the government. Or you owe money. Or someone in your family had an emergency. Or that there’s a virus on your computer.

Some scammers say there’s a problem with one of your accounts and that you need to verify some information.

Others will lie and say you won money in a lottery or sweepstakes but have to pay a fee to get it.

3. Scammers PRESSURE you to act immediately.

Scammers want you to act before you have time to think. If you’re on the phone, they might tell you not to hang up so you can’t check out their story.

They might threaten to arrest you, sue you, take away your driver’s or business license, or deport you. They might say your computer is about to be corrupted.

4. Scammers tell you to PAY in a specific way.

They often insist that you pay by using cryptocurrency, by wiring money through a company like MoneyGram or Western Union, or by putting money on a gift card and then giving them the number on the back.

Some will send you a check (that will later turn out to be fake), then tell you to deposit it and send them money.

How To Avoid a Scam

Block unwanted calls and text messages. Take steps to block unwanted calls and to filter unwanted text messages.

Don’t give your personal or financial information in response to a request that you didn’t expect. Honest organizations won’t call, email, or text to ask for your personal information, like your Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers.

If you get an email or text message from a company you do business with and you think it’s real, it’s still best not to click on any links. Instead, contact them using a website you know is trustworthy. Or look up their phone number. Don’t call a number they gave you or the number from your caller ID.

Resist the pressure to act immediately. Honest businesses will give you time to make a decision. Anyone who pressures you to pay or give them your personal information is a scammer.

Know how scammers tell you to pay. Never pay someone who insists you pay with cryptocurrencya wire transfer service like Western Union or MoneyGram, or a gift card. And never deposit a check and send money back to someone.

Stop and talk to someone you trust. Before you do anything else, tell someone — a friend, a family member, a neighbor — what happened. Talking about it could help you realize it’s a scam.

Report Scams to the FTC

If you were scammed or think you saw a scam, tell the FTC at

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Samantha Lomibao

Samantha joined KESQ News Channel 3 in May 2021. Learn more about Samantha here here.


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