Utah State University is experiencing an epidemic of fraudulent cases involving gift card scams, according to USU’s police Detective Erik Christensen. In more severe cases, they are scamming people looking for housing.
“This is something that is happening across the country right now,” he said. “Professors and students alike are susceptible.”
According to Christensen, scammers are using a variety of techniques to convince unsuspecting individuals to fork over hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The most common method is by telephone.
One tactic that thieves will use, he said, is to call and tell people they are from the Internal Revenue Service. The scammers then tell the person they are going to be arrested unless that individual gets their record cleared. In order to do that, they must go to any retail store, such as Walmart, and purchase a $1,000 gift card.
After purchasing the card, the victim calls back and gives the “IRS” the numbers on the back of the card.
“After you call and give them the card information, it’s over,” Christensen said. “They break the money trail and you never hear from them again.”
How big of a problem is this scenario? According to Christensen, there has been an outbreak of fraudulent cases at USU.
“We have had four people, just today, who have called in because they are dealing with this situation,” he said.
Pretending to be from the IRS is not the only method scammers use to scare people. They may call people and tell them a loved one is in the county jail and needs bail money, Christensen said. What he describes as the most “insidious method” however, is when they try to scam students who are apartment hunting.
“These people, these thieves, will go around and take pictures of ‘For Sale’ or ‘For Rent’ signs on other people’s lawns,” Christensen said. “They will then post the picture on places like Craigslist, pretending they own the property.”
When a student or buyer calls the number listed on a housing website, they may unintentionally end up giving their background information, social security number and money deposit to a thief.
“The best way to protect yourself from getting scammed, is to pay attention to your instincts,” Christensen said. “If something seems off, it probably is.”
Gift card scams in particular are not a new thing. According to an October 2018 article from the Federal Trade Commission, gift cards have become a popular way to steal money.
The article has a list of resources to call if you suspect you have been scammed.
Christensen also had some tips for people to avoid falling prey to these methods.
First, he said, never answer a call from an area code you do not know. Send them to voicemail. Next, never open an email from a source you are unsure about. In terms of housing, he said to only call the number on the “For Rent” sign, and, if possible, try to get directly in contact with an apartment manager.
Christensen also recognizes that out-of-state students may be more susceptible to housing scams, and he encourages them to call the USU police department. He said the department would be happy to vet any potential housing options for students.
It’s important to note too, that the IRS will not call to collect fines or threaten arrest over the phone. According to their website, the IRS generally initiates contact via mail delivered by the United States Postal Service.
“At the end of the day, do your research,” Christensen said. “The internet and Google are both great tools to help you avoid these scams. Use them.”