Hacker steals $300 off Amazon gift cards

CONCORD, Calif. (KGO) -- A birthday or holiday is coming up. You don't know what to get for someone on your list. The easy thing to do is pick up a gift card. It also can be risky.

Molvina Hollenbach of Concord had an unpleasant experience.

RELATED: Gift card trends you need to know about

"I spent $300 for three gift cards and they're all no good,'' she said. "How does that happen?"

She still isn't sure, months after somebody found a way to get all the money off her cards.

It happened when Hollenbach bought her son Adrian three $100 Amazon gift cards from a Safeway store.

"He was moving into new place,'' she said. "They needed a lot of stuff, and he loves Amazon.''

Hollenbach could have just put $300 into his Amazon account, but she wanted a gift he could open on Christmas.

She says each card was securely packaged inside a sealed envelope. As an additional security measure, the cards inside have a claim number hidden under a "scratch-off" strip on the back. The claim number is required for redeeming the money.

In spite of all that security, Adrian was shocked when he opened one of the cards and tried to load it into his Amazon account.

"He scratched off the first card and punched in the number,'' Hollenbach recalls. "And it said it's already redeemed. How can that be?"

Sure enough, the message on his screen said the card had been "already redeemed to another account."

Hollenbach said they were afraid to open the other two cards without knowing if they were valid, or it might appear they had used the money themselves.

QUICK TIP: What are the rules for returning things to the store?

They called Amazon, which told them to go to Safeway. At Safeway, a manager told them to call Amazon. Which they did. Right there in the store. Hollenbach took video of her son on the phone with a representative.

"Amazon instructed my son to scratch off the other two cards so we did that right in the store while the manager was watching," Hollenbach said. "He scratched off the first one, he said it was redeemed. Then the third one, same thing!"

Sure enough Amazon said all three cards had already been redeemed, even though the scratch off strip had been intact until that moment in the store.

"So what do we do," Hollenbach recalls saying. "We just bought three gift cards, $100 each, and they're all redeemed. I just don't get my money?"

Amazon told her to request a refund, but weeks later the company said, basically, too bad.

"The fine print in the gift card says, 'We are not responsible for lost or stolen (cards),'' Hollenbach said holding the plastic cards. "First of all, they're not lost, second of all they're not stolen."

She says an email from Amazon caused more aggravation. It said:

"I do understand your concern that the gift card has not been redeemed by you however, for security purposes, I am unable to provide you with any further information."

"Security?" Hollenbach said. "I already lost the money. They say there is nothing they can do."

Hollenbach wanted to know why the cards were susceptible to hacking.

"How could I pay $300 for the cards and they are all redeemed even though we didn't touch them,'' she wonders. "I didn't think it was right. They said they are not responsible but it is their cards."

And the money went into someone else's Amazon account. Wasn't it traceable?

Hollenbach contacted 7 On Your Side. We contacted Amazon. Hours later, Hollenbach received an email from Amazon. "They said it's done,'' she said. "Have your son check his account."

Amazon refunded that $300 after all, telling ABC7:

"Securing and maintaining the trust of our customers is our top priority. Amazon works to evolve ahead of bad actors to safeguard our products and features from misuse. Amazon investigates fraud instances and will engage law enforcement as needed for action against potential perpetrators. Customers who encounter any issue in claiming their Gift Cards are encouraged to contact Amazon's Customer Service. In this case, we worked with the customer to fully refund their purchase."

So how do thieves drain the money off gift cards? Often hackers will remove cards from store racks, copy the barcodes, wait for buyers to load the cards with money, then go online to redeem them. However in this case it's not clear how the perpetrator got the claim numbers, which were still securely hidden under the "scratch-off" strip in back. Amazon did not say whether it determined whose account was credited with her money.

Hollenbach was just happy to get that money back.

"I thought, wow ABC7 really follows through,'' she said. "I just thought that $300 was gone."

Take a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Copyright © 2019 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.