Some robbers use knives or guns to hold up their victims. For the Martin and Anna Smith in San Jose, the thieves' weapon of choice was a phone.
"We were victims like being held up by somebody holding a gun," Martin Smith said. "It felt like she had been violated."
We're not using their real names, because they're embarrassed by what happened. "Anna" is still too shaken up by what happened to talk about it, so her husband Martin talked with NBC Bay Area on her behalf. But the Smiths want to share their story, to prevent others from enduring a similar fate.
A Call from 'Tech Support'
When the phone rang on March 19, Anna believed it was Apple tech support, calling about a problem with her computer. The caller was not, in fact, from Apple; it was a scammer, armed with a playbook of lies and intimidation.
The caller at first told Anna that he had identified illegal files on her computer, and that the police would be called. The only way to prevent that was to follow his instructions, and she was ordered to not tell anyone what was happening.
"They were saying, ‘Don’t contact anybody; don’t tell your family," Martin said. "It was all very secretive, and very scary to her."
Anna went to four different stores and bought dozens of gift cards -- but most of them were purchased at one location, a Target store in south San Jose, using her American Express card.
The card account statement, shared with NBC Bay Area by the Smiths, shows Anna used the card nearly three-dozen times. Target employees let her make 35 back-to-back gift card purchases, worth a total of more than $29,000, all at one store, in one trip.
All the while, Anna remained on the phone with the scammers, ultimately buying nearly $37,000 worth of gift cards, and sharing the cards' serial numbers with the crooks.
Victims Say Fraud Alert Failed
It appears a fail-safe designed to protect Anna failed. Her husband says American Express sent a fraud alert to his phone while she was at Target, asking if the charges were legitimate.
"I replied back immediately and said 'No,'" Martin said. "They automatically sent back the reply: 'We will protect your account.'"
But later, American Express told the Smiths the charges weren't fraud.
"They told us that there was nothing they could do," Martin said. "Because she had presented [the card] to the store as the cardholder, that there was nothing they could do."
The couple was now on the hook for nearly $37,000. That's when they asked the NBC Bay Area Responds team for help.
A Welcome Decision
We wanted to know two things: If American Express sent a fraud alert, which Martin acknowledged, why did the transactions still go through? Also: when Anna started making all those huge gift card purchases at Target -- while on the phone with the scammers -- why didn’t a cashier get suspicious?
Target declined to talk about the couple's case, specifically. A spokesperson said:
At Target, we want every guest to have a safe, easy and convenient shopping experience. We take a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to preventing theft and fraud that includes partnerships with local law enforcement, technology and team member training. We’re aware of the prevalence of scams like these and we have signage in our stores and share general safety tips with our team members through training. Additionally, we share online tips with our guests for use in protecting themselves against common scam signs.
We later asked whether Target limits how many gift cards one person can buy at one time, like some stores do. A spokesperson did not immediately get back to us.
American Express didn't address our questions, but it stepped up. A spokesperson told us: "We spoke with the card member yesterday, and he was very pleased with the resolution offered by American Express."
Martin said that offer was to waive all the charges -- $36,841.46.
"We appreciate your work very much," he said.
Scammers got Americans -- many of them seniors -- to fork over $103 million in gift cards last year, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The Smiths ask that you protect your parents, grandparents, neighbors, and any other vulnerable folks in your life. Talk with them about this gift card scam, and remind them: no legitimate company or government agency demands gift cards as payment.