Experts Warn of a New Holiday Gift Card Scam

( – A massive anti-theft operation in California uncovered a new holiday gift card scam that could affect countless shoppers this season. Authorities have no idea how large the theft ring might be, but one suspect’s arrest revealed a potential international issue with evidence that he was sending his proceeds to a bank in China.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office conducted “Operation Bad Elf,” a targeted effort to address retail theft at big box stores, for one week. Detectives visited CVS, Five Below, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Marshalls, Rite Aid, Target, TJ Maxx, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart, and Ulta to search for lawbreakers. Their efforts resulted in the recovery of an estimated tens of thousands of dollars in attempted thefts.

The operation also led to 285 arrests. Most suspects received misdemeanor charges, but 78 were charged with felonies. Police1 reports that 20% of the people arrested were either on parole or probation, and 65% had been arrested previously on violent crimes charges.

Fox Business adds that one of the most notable apprehensions was that of Chinese national Ningning Sun. A detective working a Target store spotted the man behaving suspiciously near gift cards at a checkout counter. Close observation revealed the suspect allegedly clearing out the rack, hiding the cards in his jacket, and then replacing them with a separate, identical display of cards.

Investigators believe the thefts were part of a scheme that involves the items’ removal from retailers’ shelves, with suspects then tampering with the scratch-off bars that protect the cards’ PIN numbers. They record the information before restoring the protective coating and returning the cards to the shelves. When someone buys and activates one, the thieves immediately have the funds transferred to a bank. Sun was allegedly sending his stolen money to a financial institution in China.

Stay as safe as possible this holiday season when purchasing gift cards by checking for signs of tampering — like scratches or scuff marks — when buying cards off retail shelves. And make sure to keep the receipt, just in case there is a problem. The store’s loss prevention department may be able to track the funds and replace the card.

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