"˜Tis the season for circling the parking lot at the mall, fighting through long lines, and paying through the nose for gifts to give people you don't even like that much.
And with all of those holiday headaches, the last thing you need to deal with is a scam that could cost you hundreds of dollars.
Sadly, the Better Business Bureau warns that these schemes are on the rise as Christmas approaches. So if you're shopping for gift cards this year, you should heed their advice.
The Bureau warns that gift cards "are a notoriously popular item to give during the holidays, and scammers know this." They also reveal that fraudsters have several tricky ways of stealing money from gift cards you've purchased, without revealing what they've done.
Most of the scams involve recording information from gift cards on store shelves, and using that information to access the cash added to the card before you or your loved on can.
Here's how to keep your gift cards safe this Christmas:
First, before you take the card to the cash register, check it very carefully.
On the back of any gift card, you'll usually find a long string of numbers (the card ID), a bar code or magnetic strip, and a PIN number (which is sometimes hidden under foil or a sticker).
If you can tell that someone has lifted the sticker off a card to look at the PIN number, you should never buy it. The same goes for cards where packaging blocking the card ID or PIN number has been removed.
Scammers who have recorded these numbers could use them to spend money loaded onto your card.
The Bureau also warns that scammers will move cards they've tampered with to the front of their racks, so you should always try to take your gift cards from the back of the shelf.
You can take extra steps to protect your gift cards at some stores by registering them, or linking the card to a password or other personal information that can prevent it from being misused.
It also pays to copy the ID number and PIN of your gift cards on the receipt for your purchase. If your card is lost or stolen, this can help get a refund, or let you access the funds on the card remotely.
Finally, while you may not be targeted by a scam, you should still always be diligent and careful when buying gift cards as presents.
Some cards, like certain prepaid gift credit cards, are notorious for charging hidden fees that eat into the value you load on the card. And it's always risky to buy gift cards for a company that could close soon.
Even losing your local Kmart or Sears location could create a major hassle for your relatives, if you give them a card from that store
And, as always, be wary of online stores, especially ones offering gift cards for huge discounts. While ordering them online from the store's own web page is safe, third party stores offering gift cards are known for selling ones that are expired, empty, or counterfeit.
The same goes for online businesses offering to check the value of your gift cards. You should only check the value of your gift card in store, because this is a common way for scammers to obtain the codes for your gift cards.
It's worth sharing this information with your family, since the National Retail Federation expects shoppers to spend $27.6 billion on gift cards this Christmas.
They say the average gift card buyer spends about $45 each on an average of four cards, and that's a lot of money to potentially lose to scammers.