Coles and Woolworths gift card scams resurface: Why Christmas is prime-time for scammers

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The end-of-year rush is prime time for shoppers to fall for the promise of free things, says one behavioural economics expert who warns Australians to protect themselves in the face of a number of supermarket gift card scams doing the rounds in the weeks before Christmas.

Over the weekend, shoppers once again took to the social media accounts of Coles and Woolworths, asking for clarification after receiving text messages and emails appearing to congratulate them for winning a gift card.

One text message claiming to be from Coles told shoppers they had won $1000 as part of “our customer of the month” program, while Woolworths’ customers were told they had won $2000 through the same scheme. Links to external websites were then provided, with scammers asking customers to fill in details to claim the prize.

Both supermarkets responded swiftly to customers on Facebook, with Woolworths saying the offers were “definitely” a scam.

This is not the first time the brands have been impersonated through text messages. In August, a wave of similar scams were doing the rounds, with the retailers telling SmartCompany they have dedicated customer warning pages to track current threats.

But just six weeks out from Christmas, this time around many customers are saying that even though they knew the texts were likely scams, they were tempted to check with the retailers just in case the prize was genuine.

Woolworths confirmed to SmartCompany this morning it has no affiliation with any of the texts offering vouchers, and has taken steps to warn customers at the checkout not to respond to any unsolicited messages online, including warning shoppers not to buy iTunes vouchers in large numbers.

A number of other scams in recent months have called on shoppers to buy iTunes cards, with scammers telling them these would be used to pay for products like NBN services.

“Woolworths has introduced a number of measures in-store to alert our customers to these scams including placing customer warning notices where iTunes vouchers are displayed, at customer service desks and in the self check out areas,” a spokesperson says.

“We encourage our customers to contact the local authorities should they believe they are engaged in this or any other scam,” Woolworths says.

SmartCompany contacted Coles but did not receive comments prior to publication.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch tracker, Australians have lost more than $1.2 million dollars this year through unexpected gift and prize scams. Behavioural economics expert Bri Williams tells SmartCompany it’s easy to see why these offers pop up in large numbers towards the end of the year.

“The end of the year is a really precarious time for shoppers — they’re exhausted, and they are feeling pressured to make quick decisions,” she says.

Shoppers are likely to be tempted into checking out gift card offers if they come from a brand they regularly interact with, and at this point scammers can impersonate familiar brands with incredible accuracy, Williams says.

“The risk that emerges when these come from seemingly reputable sources is that we’ve already trusted them,” she says.

Make genuine prizes and customer offers clear

The proliferation of prize scams at the end of the year also presents a challenge for retailers and other loyalty programs that may be looking to genuinely give back to customers, because shoppers might be suspicious of free offers.

Williams says this makes it important for brands to create trust by branding offers carefully and making sure communications include information about the customer that only the genuine retailer would know.

“Make the customer confident that you are who you say you are, by including something like their company number,” she says.

“And it really doesn’t hurt to explain exactly why they are getting a reward — if it was a prize draw, explain to shoppers how it worked.”

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