Drug addicts have a tendency to get rather clever when it comes to getting money to support their habit without getting a job. One of the biggest scams going on this year is a gift card scam. This is when a person steals a high dollar item from a large retail outlet and then returns it to another location. Not for cash, though; for credit in the form of a gift card. These cards can then be used to generate cash.
A recent investigation by CNBC found that the gift card scam has become big business within the junkie culture. Desperate people steal from retail giants, like Walmart and Home Depot. And then return the merchandise to another location without a receipt. Excellent customer service is important to these chains. So the store will typically handle these types of transactions by simply issuing the person a gift card equal to the value of the product.
At this point, the person can sell the card at a discounted rate to pawn shops or online. Or even trade it out in the street in exchange for illegal drugs.
This scheme has been going on for several years. But law enforcement agencies say the practice of obtaining illegal gift cards has become more prominent recently in the midst of the opioid crisis. Back in the day, thieves would steal merchandise and liquidate it on the streets. But now they are simply using the gift card method, which makes it easier to generate cash through online sales and other venues.
What makes this situation good for criminals is police have not yet found a way to track this type of activity.
Here’s how it works.
The Gift Card Scam
Mr. Fingers walks into a Walmart on the east side of town like any other customer. He is on the prowl for valuable merchandise that is easy to carry. He stays away from stuff like televisions and computers. Once he finds what he is looking for, Mr. Fingers then picks up one or two cheaper items and makes his way to the self-check out line to complete the deal. He will either pull the old switcheroo with the price tags, making it so the barcode of the cheaper item gets attached to the more expensive one, or he will cleverly maneuver the products so only the cheaper item gets scanned. Remember, there are eyes all over the store, so whatever method Mr. Fingers uses to steal the merchandise must be done in such a way that it does not attract the attention.
Mr. Fingers then takes the stolen merchandise to another Walmart on the west side of town. At the customer service desk, he gives the clerk a brief spiel about how he received the item as a gift and wishes to return it. Since he doesn’t have a receipt, the store will not give him cash back. Instead, the clerk will simply issue a gift card for the value of the returned item.
But here’s the trick. Most stores require anyone returning merchandise without a receipt to show an ID. The larger retail chains do this to identify people who habitually return merchandise. If Mr. Fingers has returned more than one or two items in a short period of time, the store will likely flag him for suspected criminal activity. If this is his first time, there will be no problem whatsoever. He will walk out of the store with a gift card that he can sell online for up to 80 percent of the value. If he sells it in the street, the card will only bring in 20-30 percent.
This is a daily job for some people lost to the grips of opioid addiction.
If done right, individuals who run this scam can rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of months, according to a Florida-based company called Retail Theft Analysis.
According to the National Retail Federation, “return fraud” costs retail outlets in upwards of $11 billion a year.
Some stores, however, are working to get ahead of the problem. Many have changed their return policies to make it harder for people to get away with this kind of organized crime. There are even steps being taken to help law enforcement track gift card transactions on the secondary market. So it’s just a matter of time before the gift card scam loses its functionality in the streets.
Final Hit: Drug Addicts Running Gift Card Scam At Alarming Rate
Unfortunately, addiction often leads to criminal activity. It puts otherwise law-abiding citizens in a position where they endure incarceration and felony records. And their chances of making a come back is slim.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say that only 5 percent of the opioid addicts forced into rehab programs by the criminal justice system receive the treatment necessary to help them recover and return as a productive member of society. This means in addition to the risk of overdose, many of these people, the same ones running gift card scams, will find themselves in a vicious cycle of arrests and jail.
But that doesn’t matter to most addicts.
“You don’t care how many charges you have, you don’t care what you’ve been through; you just care about the next one,” said 23-year-old Kristen Booth. She has been busted several times for crimes connected to gift cards. “When you’re suffering from addiction, any length means any length.”