> GIFT CARD SCAM

We were scammed - this is a must read, a first hand experience and how it can easily happen to you

Never Say Never

E-mails are a necessary evil in our society. These underline the business world. Work orders, follow-ups, leads, intros, info, holiday snaps, gossip, and general chats: there are hardly any people left on the planet who’ve never sent an e-mail. Plus, we’ve all got inboxes and junk folders overflowing with spam.

When an e-mail from your CEO lands in your inbox, you hop onto it immediately. High priority. You even flag it to highlight it in the sea of daily e-mails. Also, this is the moment you’ve waited for at the new job: to break into the inner ring, the circle of trust, to mix with the C-level. All the while I’m thinking I need to do this right, and I’ll be looked upon with favour come pay increases, leave applications, and promotions.

“Hi Evan, I got a request. Can you handle it discreetly? Let me know if you’re available to help out.”

I respond enthusiastically: “Of course. I’m here to help in any way I can.”

Working across half a dozen time zones, business never sleeps in our company. We have sales teams around the world, our production team is always cranking out designs and pages for our various book projects – there are always people sending e-mails and working. That’s the nature of business in a post-COVID-19 international publishing company.

I’ve attended a dozen “Internet Privacy and Security” conferences over the years. Heck, I’ve even hosted a few regarding social media privacy and security for parents and teachers. I read articles about how people are scammed – and always tell myself that I’m too smart for that.

Today I wasn’t. I was scammed out of $730 [ZAR11,000].

Our company recently underwent a restructuring. Our office is feverishly working on several projects and all of them are going to be signed off at about the same time. E-mails are flowing in thick and fast. Zoom meetings are taking up more and more of my time – and writing and researching soak up all of my time. This is why I do what I do.

The follow-up e-mail from the CEO drops into my inbox. “Here’s what I want you to do for me. I’ve been working on incentives and I aim to surprise some of our staff with gift cards today.”

That makes perfect sense. I’m on it. Any way I can help the company. Our recent restructuring is in my mind: I’ve just prepared a press release about it. I know how incredibly busy the team is.

I respond with excitement and the impersonator takes the scam up a level.

“Great! I need your help to purchase 5 pieces of iTunes Gift Cards all in $66 [ZAR1,000] value –  a total of $330 [ZAR5,000]. I need you to keep this a secret ‘til I reveal the beneficiaries. To make things easy, scratch off the back of the gift cards, take a clear photo of each gift card showing the pins and email the images to me here with the receipts for reimbursement. I would like to send them out with personal messages.”

I reply: “Sounds lovely. I can buy them in about 20 min. Will mail you soon.”

Now I’m chatting on a new level with the CEO. So far, so good. Running to the mall quickly, juggling client meetings and Zoom interviews for a few stories, I send off the gift cards.

“Hi Evan, Have seen the cards. Sorry for bothering you, I would like you to go ahead and purchase the same gift cards for the rest of the team now too, I think. Another 6 more will be great. Don’t forget to send me your account details for reimbursement.”

Off to the shop I go again – for the CEO. I swipe my credit card for the extra iTunes gift cards and max out my limit. Gulp. That’s okay. The CEO will definitely pay me back.

I send off the batch of images of the iTunes gift cards as per the instructions.

Another ping in my inbox about an hour later.

“I think we’ll need a few more for our clients. What do you think? Maybe 5 will do it.”

So, now after clearing out my bank account, I hop onto WhatsApp to confirm the instruction.

“Hi, I just want to confirm that you want a total of 16 iTunes gift cards. Another 5?”

After no reply for 20 minutes, I send another e-mail – this time by hitting the “New Message” button in my laptop’s Outlook app. At this point, it’s still not sinking in about a scam. I tap the CEO’s e-mail address and copy/paste the WhatsApp message into the body. I hit send with my hope that this isn’t a scam.

After another 20 minutes of radio silence, I guess my CEO is doing CEO things and is too busy to respond. I carry on with my other tasks.

My WhatsApp beeps. “It’s a scam. It’s not me. Forward me those mails.”

“Oh fuck!”

I was in for $730 (ZAR11,000), no way of recovering that money myself, and now I look like an idiot to everyone around me. I call my superior – to hopefully allay my fears. I gulp down the bad news: I was scammed.

If only I had asked my boss earlier… But, I know it would have been against the CEO’s wishes. If it was true, I’d be in a mess. I mean, the e-mails were so straightforward, the task a no-brainer. I’d wash the CEO’s car if he asked.

A moment later it dawns on me. It happened. 38 years old. E-mail user for more than 20 years. I’ve received probably 10 million spam messages. This one carried the same tone, prose, and style my CEO would use. He impersonated my CEO. The scammer conned me: hooking my emotions first, muddled my logic, overrode my enthusiasm, and then pushed me deeper into their web of deception.

Funnily enough, the FTC published an article in September 2021 with the title: “Your boss isn’t emailing you about a gift card.”

The one time my journalist instinct doesn’t kick in and I don’t research something before taking action. And, this one is coming from my own wallet. I should have been even more apprehensive. Hook, line, and sinker.

That FTC article says: “They then make up a story about needing your help with something — an office surprise party, a company event, even a simple errand. Whatever the reason, they’ll ask you to help by paying them with gift cards, promising to pay you back later. But once you hand over the gift card number and PIN, the money is gone.”

Word for word. I was fooled. Bamboozled. And robbed of my confidence. I’m embarrassed.

What I’ve learned is to NEVER buy a gift card ever again. Sorry to my nieces – they’ll never receive another iTunes or Play Store gift card from me again. No vouchers for shopping malls. I’ve been burned.

Even though I might lose brownie points with the CEO, I’ll check in with my superior.

Last, I will make sure to re-think these situations before acting – but not curb my enthusiasm.

If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.

P.S. The upside: my bosses are some of the greatest humans around. They have supported me throughout this and encouraged me to pen this as a tale of warning for others. Their reaction and support have shown me what a great group of people I work with.

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