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Police are warning people across America and Europe about a new scam that tricks you or your loved ones into buying Apple gift cards.

And what’s worse, if you fall for it, it’s incredibly likely that you won’t get your money back.

So what does it entail? How can you avoid it? And should you really be concerned?

What’s the Scam?

It’s a very simple scam — so simple, in fact, you might find it bizarre that people are actually falling for it. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t immediately scoff. Stick with us because it’s worth knowing about.

It might not trouble you specifically, but it’s affecting many who don’t necessarily know much about iTunes.

rack of itunes gift cards
Image Credits: Hani Arif via Flickr

There is a history of fraudsters using them for purposes of money-laundering, but recently this has grown into a scam that scares legions of victims into purchasing these cards.

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A criminal contacts you claiming to be a representative from a governmental department or company. They do this by either cold calling Cold Calling Computer Technicians: Don't Fall for a Scam Like This [Scam Alert!] Cold Calling Computer Technicians: Don't Fall for a Scam Like This [Scam Alert!] You've probably heard the term "don't scam a scammer" but I've always been fond of "don't scam a tech writer" myself. I'm not saying we're infallible, but if your scam involves the Internet, a Windows... Read More (typically using spoofed phone numbers so anyone with call recognition might still be fooled), using voicemail and leaving automated messages, or sending SMS.

Victims are warned, in all three cases, that they need to urgently return the call or risk further penalty.

In the U.K., scammers often pretend to be HMRC, but other variations persist. Notably, fraudsters in America purport to be ringing in regards to additional fees for services including insurance cover, shipping, or any other unpaid debt.

Victims are then informed that the quickest and easiest way to pay fees (before more interest is added) is by purchasing iTunes gift cards Got an Apple or iTunes Gift Card? Here's What You Can Buy Got an Apple or iTunes Gift Card? Here's What You Can Buy Snagged an Apple Store, iTunes, or Apple Music gift card this holiday season? Here's what you can buy with it. Read More . Once they’ve done this, all they have to do is give the criminal the 16-digit code revealed underneath the peel-off label on the back.

Once that’s done, there’s no going back. Your money is gone — except when you’re swift enough to realize what’s happened.

Wait, How Are People Fooled by This?

Thousands of Apple gift cards are purchased worldwide, either for ourselves (instead of using money on a credit or debit card How Credit Card Fraud Works, And How To Stay Safe How Credit Card Fraud Works, And How To Stay Safe Despite what you may have heard, credit cards do get stolen, and credit card fraud happens, online and offline. But how does a thief get your card number, and how can you keep it safe? Read More ) or as presents, for when you don’t know exactly what to buy someone or if the recipient is constantly glued to their smartphone How to Recognize and Overcome Your Tech Addiction How to Recognize and Overcome Your Tech Addiction Overcoming tech addiction doesn't mean ending your use of that technology, it just means using technology to improve the quality of your life. This guide shows you how to manage your online cravings. Read More . They work in pretty much the same way as other gift cards: you simply load them with money and, using the code revealed on its reverse, you can buy music or apps using it.

But that doesn’t mean everyone knows the specifics of iTunes.

An older generation, for example, might be unfamiliar with how they work. Indeed, some call this a “grandparent scam” as some con artists trick their victims into thinking they’re helping a family member in financial trouble. It was even claimed, in one instance, as bail money!

rack of itunes gift cards
Image Credit: Mike Mozart via Flickr

Of course, the vast majority of scams play on such worries. Common sense can disappear when faced with the prospect of police or debt-recovery involvement (and that’s what criminals are threatening, should supposed charges not be paid).

And there is a way even the relatively tech-savvy could be fooled into purchasing gift cards.

Fraudsters have altered their approach, claiming that gift cards are a way of using Apple Pay Everything You Need to Know about Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Android Pay Everything You Need to Know about Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Android Pay Android Pay, Samsung Pay, Apple Pay all have their advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a look at exactly how each of them works and who can use them. Read More . As that’s a comparatively new feature How To Use Apple Pay To Buy Things With Your iPhone How To Use Apple Pay To Buy Things With Your iPhone Your iPhone may some day be the only device you need to purchase products and services, but first you need to start using Apple Pay. Read More , and not one used by the masses just yet, some think this is feasible, especially those who don’t want to use Apple Pay for fear it’s a security risk Are Contactless Payment Systems A Threat To Your Finances? Are Contactless Payment Systems A Threat To Your Finances? Contactless payments have become more popular, but are they secure? What threats surround this new financial fad? More importantly, should you sign up? Read More .

An incredible £15,000 (over $19,000) was lost by one victim, so it’s not to be laughed at.

How Can Criminals Benefit From This?

It immediately seems an odd case of fraud — after all, criminals are just left with loads of codes. Surely no one can spend nearly $20,000 on apps and music for iDevices? Well, no. Criminals have other uses Who Are The Scammers? Following The Money Stolen as Online Fraud Who Are The Scammers? Following The Money Stolen as Online Fraud Who are the people profiting from online fraud? Where is the money going? Look beyond the "Nigerian advance fee fraud" - you'd be surprised where the money really leads. Read More for those digits.

They can simply sell the codes on for a fraction of their retail price. Few would turn down the chance to get a $100 iTunes code, albeit without the actual gift card, for the price of $50 or even $75. Naturally, however much cash a con artist can get is pure profit.

Offers might be made on the internet generally, such as through auction sites or social media (though it’s worth pointing out that most of these are genuine and that the likes of eBay do have rigorous checks), or via the Dark Web Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web It's uncomfortable to think of yourself as a commodity, but all of your personal details, from name and address to bank account details, are worth something to online criminals. How much are you worth? Read More . This is considered the underbelly of the internet, a place where criminal activity is a day-to-day thing.

The positive thing, for scammers at least, is that they can convert these codes into untraceable currencies very easily (BitCoin being the most prevalent What Are Bitcoins Actually Used For Now in 2016? What Are Bitcoins Actually Used For Now in 2016? Bitcoin has been on the up-and-up for several years now, but is it viable as a currency yet? What exactly can you buy with it right now? Read More ).

What Can You Do About It?

Knowing about this scam is half the battle. So spread that knowledge! You might not be tricked by such a simple fraud, but there’s likely to be a relative, friend, or neighbor who could be fooled.

Let them know that if they’re ever asked to pay off fees using a gift card, it’s a scam. It doesn’t matter if that’s an iTunes one or another gift card.

pile of smartphones and tablets
Image Credits: Blake Patterson via Flickr

If you think you’ve been scammed: Contact Apple immediately. The company might be able to cancel the card before funds are drained. Criminals have streamlined the process so you need to be quick. Of course, if it’s another gift card (Google Store, for example), you need to contact the respective firm.

If you’re a shop assistant: Be aware of this scam and let your peers know about it. It might be worth asking managerial employees to put a sign up about it in the staff room. That way, if a customer is purchasing a suspect amount of cards, you can feel confident about finding out more. You could save someone from being a victim.

Have you received such a call or know someone who has? What did you do? Are there any variations MakeUseOf readers should know about?

Image Credit: Nikolic Dragoslav via Shutterstock.com

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  1. Jennifer Wallace
    August 1, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Well I received a US Postal money order and was told to deposit it into my account and then after that go to certain stores and purchase itunes gift cards with 100 or 50 dollars amounts on them. But I have to buy $750 worth and I can only spend up to 400 in a single store. But I was to evaluate the store in the process. And I get to keep the $194. This is for Mystery Shopping. Is this legit? I haven' t did anything as far as open the package and read it.