Don’t do your boss any favors buying gift cards — it’s likely a scam

Susan Tompor

We’ve had the “one ring” phone scam, the fake IRS phone calls, the scam that tricks you into thinking that your Social Security number has been connected to some car in Texas that was involved with running drugs across the border.

And now we have the “Can you do me a favor?” scam.

Sure, you’re thinking, “Hey, I know quite a few folks who ask for favors and run that scam everyday.”

But trust us, this one has a new twist.

“Usually, it starts with an email,” said Amy Nofziger, AARP fraud expert.

The email could look like it’s from your boss, maybe your minister or pastor, maybe the principal of your school.

A 31-year-old woman who had just started a job in April didn’t think twice when she got an email from her boss asking for help in early May.

“My boss was on vacation but he said he was going to be working remote,” said the Florida woman, who asked that her name not be used because she didn’t want more emails from scammers.

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She works at a company that sells high-end appliances and her job often involves handling different projects for her boss.

So she wasn’t taken aback when he sent an email and asked her to buy four $500 gift cards to be used as prizes for employees. And she received other emails supposedly from her boss during the process.

“He kept asking: ‘Where are we on this?'” she said.

In the end, she bought two Best Buy gift cards and two Target gift cards.

She lost $2,000 in total after she charged the gift cards on her credit card.

At some point, she started thinking something was off once the boss asked for more gift cards. And then somehow, she checked on the balances on the four cards she already had bought and discovered they were all at $0.

She had sent her “boss” the codes off the gift cards and the crooks were able to access the money. She later googled scams and discovered a warning about crooks sending fake emails pretending to be your boss.

Her advice now: “As soon as you get an email like that, call your boss. Just make sure it’s him or her.”

The requests appear to be sincere
Consumers are warned that these sorts of scams can start innocently enough.

The message in the initial email might be something like: “Jane, could you please email me back? I need a favor.”

Or “Sally, are you available at the moment? I need you to handle a project. Very busy at the moment. Can’t talk. Just send an email when you receive this. Thanks.”

And remember, the phishing email is crafted to appear legitimate, often signed by someone we know. So, sure, we want to help. The email address is even similar to your supervisor’s email, too. So many of us don’t think twice.

“We want to please people and we certainly want to please people that are in a position of authority,” Nofziger said.

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Liking to please people, of course, makes you a good target for scammers.

Once we respond to the first email, we’re going to get another email.

The note could say something like: “Good to hear from you. I need to get three iTunes gift cards for my niece. It’s her birthday but I can’t do this now because I’m currently traveling. Can you get them for me from any store around you? I’ll pay back next week when I get back home.”

Or the email might state: “I need you to pick up three Home Depot gift cards for our project.”

Gail Engel, 63, got a text out of the blue from Pastor Joseph saying that a friend of his has cancer and he asked her to help him buy some gift cards as a get well gift. He was at the hospital right now.

Engel, who lives in Loveland, Colo., said she works with Father Joseph but a Pastor Joseph? The wording sounded odd.

The timing of the text worked against the scammers, too.

Engel – who is retired but heads a nonprofit for grandparents raising their grandchildren – was attending a meeting of that group at a church building. The speaker was from the AARP and discussing scams.

So Engel did text back saying: “No, I can’t help you but call this number and they might be able to help you.” She texted a number for the AARP fraud hotline.

Organizations are targeted
How do the scammers even know the name of your boss?

Consumer watchdogs say the fraudsters could be using some sort of organizational chart that is easily found online. Look up a school, you’re going to have easy access to finding the emails for teachers, as well as the name of the principal. The same’s true for some online church directories or online information for a company’s staff.

“Scammers are using technology and the amount of personal information we put online to exploit us,” Nofziger said.

“It’s so creative – let’s give them some credit,” she said. “It’s creative in the way they’re social engineering you.”

“It does seem to be targeting an audience that is working or is involved in a social group,” Nofziger said.

Once the gift cards are bought, the impersonators will ask you to take photos of the numbers on the back of the gift cards and text them the photos.

Often, the person in authority says the photo is needed as a record so you can be reimbursed. But once you send those photos, you’re never, ever going to get your money back.

Crooks are able to use the numbers to download the value quickly and you’re stuck holding the bag. The money is gone and almost impossible to trace.

The scammers in the case with the four $500 gift cards somehow seemed to know that the young woman’s boss was on vacation or maybe that she was even new on the job. In retrospect, the woman said she realizes that if her company wanted her to spend that kind of money, they probably would have given her a credit card to do so.

“It was just too weird,” said the young woman, who has a toddler and a baby on the way.

She joked that she told her husband that she knew he’d be upset about her being scammed but says she reminded him that she was pregnant, so don’t get too upset.

The couple worked it out and her husband helped her deal with the added expense.

Consumer watchdogs say some gift cards requested in scams include: Home Depot, Best Buy, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Steam, MoneyPak and, oddly enough, even Sephora, a retailer specializing in cosmetics, skincare and fragrances.

Some consumers lose $500 and some lose as much as $5,000.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned that more scammers are demanding payment on gift cards than ever before.

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The AARP Fraud Network said it is seeing an uptick of phishing emails supposedly from your boss, your minister, the principal of your school, all asking for a favor.

No, the scam isn’t as widespread as one where someone pretends to be your grandson or son who is in desperate need of help. (Maybe they just got into an auto accident and they’re requesting Home Depot gift cards. Why Home Depot? The police officer needs to go out and buy tools to fix the light pole that was knocked over in the accident.)

And no, the do-me-a-favor scam isn’t as constant as the latest Social Security scam where someone needs to confirm your Social Security number so you can clear your name and prove you weren’t laundering money or hauling drugs.

But Nofziger said the scam is growing and consumers need to be made more aware of it before it hits an epidemic level. Consumers can report scams or get more information at or call the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline at 877-908-3360.

So do yourself a big favor, don’t immediately respond to emails asking for a favor. Maybe pick up the phone first, call the person and ask if they really need any extra help.

Contact Susan Tompor: 313-222-8876 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @tompor.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Don’t do your boss any favors buying gift cards — it’s likely a scam

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