Every penny counts for Carmen Corona, who lives on a disability check.
“After I pay my bills, I have very little left,” she said.
That’s why it took her about a year to save up to buy two $500 gift cards.
“A thousand dollars to me is like a million dollars to a millionaire,” she said. “It’s huge.”
Corona bought the cards for her son and another teen she considers a second son. Both headed off to college this year.
“I just wanted to help them as much as I could,” she said. “They’re going to need a microwave, pots and pans, you know warmer clothes.”
But the teens, Corona said, weren’t able to buy a thing because when they tried to use the cards they had a zero balance.
“I was devastated,” Corona said.
The same thing happened to Patricia Spedding when she tried to use a $100 Visa gift card during a trip to Hawaii.
“It was really embarrassing because it feels like it was my fault or something when it really wasn’t,” Spedding said.
Thieves are actually to blame, according to Jill Gonzalez, an analyst at Wallet Hub – a consumer finance website.
“So your gift card that you thought was shiny and new is now completely used,” Gonzalez said.
Here’s how it works: Thieves pull gift cards off store racks copying down or taking pictures of the numbers and that includes the numbers under the protective seal. That strip is replaced so you can’t tell the card has been tampered with. Thieves then use software alerting them when a card has been activated.
“Since this fraudster knows right away when you’ve activated their funds, they’re on the move,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said the thieves then makes a new card with your card’s info to use themselves or sell it.
Corona said she went to Walmart first for answers.
“They told me they had been cashed out [in Arkansas] the same day I bought them,” she said. “I don’t even know where Arkansas is much less even know anybody there.”
She said store managers told her she was out of luck.
“I feel terrible,” Corona said. “I cried myself to sleep many, many nights.”
In a statement, Walmart told NBC 6 Responds they “…are replacing her gift cards as they were affected by fraud.”
Spedding also got her money back after calls from NBC Responds. In a statement, VISA apologized to Spedding and said, “We do all we can to ensure the cards function properly.”
Both women were happy to get their money back, but said the experience has changed the way they shop.
“I will never get a gift card again,” Corona said.
To protect your purchase, watch for a tampered package and avoid third-party sellers like eBay. Your best bet is to buy directly from a retailer online and email the gift card to the recipient. And, if you can, don’t activate the card until you are ready to use it.