A gift card display stands at a Walmart Inc. store in Burbank, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Technology developed by Walmart helped the retail giant identify and freeze nearly $4 million in gift cards that had been bought by thousands of primarily elderly victims at the direction of con artists who duped them, according to court records and the company.
The U.S. Department of Justice, after being notified by Walmart, recently seized that money through a federal court action in Arkansas. Now victims of the frauds can claim the money.
“It was impressive what they were able to do,” a DOJ official said about Walmart’s actions. The official spoke with CNBC on the condition that they not be identified.
The seizure of the swindled gift card funds is good news for older Americans and others who lost money in those schemes — if they become aware that they can claim their swindled money.
But the money that Walmart saved for those victims is just a small fraction of the millions of dollars annually lost in so-called imposter scams that rely on gift card purchases.
And the amount of money obtained by such schemes has spiked in recent years.
In the first nine months of 2021, consumers reported losing $148 million in frauds where gift cards were used to pay scammers, according to Federal Trade Commission data.
In comparison, $114 million was reported lost in gift card frauds for the entirety of 2020, the FTC says.
How gift card scams work
Gift card scams routinely involve callers, often from overseas, phoning victims and telling them they owe money for a debt or needed services and that they should immediately go to a retail location to buy a gift card that can be used to pay off the purported obligation.
The caller claims to be the representative of a government agency, utility or private company that insists on immediate payment.
“They create this false sense of urgency,” said the DOJ official.
“‘You need to resolve this now, or some sort of horrible thing is…
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