How this Bay Area Best Buy is stopping scammers in their tracks

SAN CARLOS, Calif. (KGO) -- There is no shortage of scams operating in the shadows - whether it's IRS impersonators, fake tech support, phony sweepstakes. Just as we become wise to one scheme, another pops up.

And one thing the crimes all have in common? The crooks want payments that cannot be traced.

RELATED: 82-year-old grandmother commits suicide after falling for scam

They've received money via Western Union, money packs, even iTunes gift cards. Now scammers are using another giant retailer to squeeze their victims -- but the company is stopping them in their tracks.

"There have been more and more gift card scams than ever before,'' said Colin James, manager of the Best Buy store in San Carlos.

His employees and others across the Best Buy chain are being trained not just to sell electronics -- but to spot potential fraud victims.

"What we started seeing a lot of is the elderly consumers coming in to the store on their phones, frantic.'' James said. "They immediately go frantically looking for gift cards."

And not just a few gift cards. The customers are desperate to buy thousands of dollars' worth.

AVOID SCAMMERS: Don't answer calls or texts from these area codes

"When our employees see that, for us it's a red flag,'' James said.

It places the staff in the unusual position of seeing victims while they are being victimized -- and hoping to prevent it.

Generally the victims appear to be in a panic, with cellphones pressed to their ears, and a voice at the other end directing them to buy huge amounts of Best Buy gift cards.

"We'll tell them to hang up the phone and report it to police,'' James said. "We tell them, in your situation, what you are going through it's generally a scam."

Most are targets of the so-called "grandparent scam." That's when criminals call them up pretending to be a loved one in trouble, needing money right away. Usually they call a home number, then say something like "grandma it's me!" They hope the grandparent will respond with something like "Jack is that you?"

The scheme takes hold from there.

RELATED: Scam artists work quickly in times of disaster

Employees who spot a victim show them a fact sheet with a banner headline: "Beware of Gift Card Scams." It's posted in the store, notably right above the gift card racks.

The sheet lists the warning signs of a scam with questions like: "Is someone calling claiming to be a family member in trouble?" "Are you being asked to purchase large sums of gift cards?" "Is someone claiming to be the IRS?"

It notes that gift cards cannot be used to pay taxes, legal fees or bail. It warns never to share gift card numbers or PINs with anyone else.

The scammers would demand those gift card numbers, then use them to drain the cards of their value or sell them online.

James said victims generally are stunned to find out it's only a scam. It can take some doing to convince them it's all a con.

"They are at times surprised,'' James said. "But I think it does bring them down to earth."

RELATED: Oakland Unified School District warns parents about kidnapping phone scam

Best Buy gift cards aren't the only ones that scammers relish. Many demand payment with iTunes cards. Apple tries to thwart those attempts too, placing a warning on the cards themselves. It says there is "a string of scams asking people to pay for things like taxes, hospital bills, debt collection and utilities" using iTunes cards.

iTunes gift cards only pay for iTunes -- never anything else

Seniors are increasingly targeted by con artists, law enforcement officials say. The U.S. Justice Department just announced a sweeping campaign to crack down on scams against the elderly. At a news conference with officials on Thursday, a Texas woman was brought to tears as she recounted how her 82-year-old grandmother lost all of her money to a sweepstakes scam - then tragically committed suicide.

RELATED: 7 On Your Side warns about tax scam after woman bilked out of savings

"When she realized that she had been defrauded, she was extremely devastated, she felt humiliated, and she had literally lost everything," said the granddaughter, Angela Stancik of Houston. "It pains me to say this, but she took her life because of this incident. The events leading to my grandmother's death have scarred my family and left us all in shock. The pain and the loss from her tragic death surrounds us all daily."

James at Best Buy said the store has done a small part for combating the abuse, having foiled dozens of attempts at stealing money. It not only saved victims, it earned Best Buy the county's first crime prevention award.

Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said in part: "The sense of accountability and responsibility (Best Buy employees) have internally for their own security and that of their customers contributes to overall public safety in the community."

Best Buy wouldn't let us talk to the employees who stopped these scams - but we thank them too.

See Best Buy's warning to customers about gift card scams here.

Click here for a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Written and produced by Renee Koury
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