For Michael Alan Winicour, it’s tough to relive the details of what happened to him last summer. It’s not pleasant for him to admit he fell victim to a scam, in which he lost thousands of dollars.
“They just keep you thinking that I’m saving myself by doing this,” said Winicour, referring to the scammers.
It’s a story that even his own son, Corey Blake Winicour, had trouble understanding.
“I was like, 'What are you talking about? Why? You did what? How does this makes any sense at all,'” said Winicour's son.
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
On June 5, 2021, Winicour, 76-years-old, received an email, which appeared to be from the company Apple. The email, with the subject line “Your Apple iTunes Subscription,” appeared to be a statement with an order confirmation. Believing there was a problem, Winicour called the number listed on the e-mail. He now realizes, making that phone call was a big mistake.
“They said they found bills that were charged to my Apple account and in order to eliminate that issue, go get some gift cards at Target… you’ll read us the numbers and we’ll grab the money and put it into your Apple account,” said Winicour.
So he did.
Within minutes, Winicour went to the nearest Target store in Lake Bluff in Chicago’s far northwest suburbs. Within a two-and-a-half hour time span, he spent over $7,000 in Target gift cards.
Winicour said the scammers stayed on the phone with him the entire time. Receipts provided to NBC 5, show there were 10 visits to the same location and five at the same register. Most of the visits were within 20 to 30 minutes apart.
“They would bring him back to the parking lot where they convinced him to read the numbers off the gift cards… again believing it was in his best interest and then they would send him back in to purchase some more," said his son, Corey Blake Winicour.
After all was set and done, Winicour lost a total of $8,497.48.
"I’m not destitute, but many people are and that’s what really really hurts and it’s sad. It needs to come to an end," said Winicour.
“It’s very hard from the outside to make sense of how this happened to somebody and yet it’s happening to tens of hundreds of thousands of people, “ said Corey Blake Winicour.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, in the first nine months of 2021 alone, nearly 40,000 people reported $148 million stolen using gift cards. But Steve Bernas with the Chicago Better Business Bureau says those cases are underreported.
“Unfortunately, the scammers and getting better and better each and every day,” said Bernas. “There’s not enough government police to protect consumers… this is a worldwide problem, not just a U.S. problem or a Chicago problem.”
So what can you do to avoid becoming victim of this type of scam?
According to Bernas, the only way to put scams out of business is not to give them your business in the first place. Adding, if anyone tells you to buy gift cards and read back the numbers, don’t believe it. It’s a scam.
For Winicour, it’s been a difficult lesson, but also an eye-opening one. He has since filed a lawsuit against Target Corporation, hoping for change.
“The stores need to commit to try and slow this down or stop it… they have the ability,” said Winicour.
In response to our story, a spokeswoman for Target sent NBC 5 the following statement:
“Unfortunately, gift card scams are a persistent issue across the retail industry. Target takes these crimes extremely seriously and we use a multi-layered, comprehensive approach to mitigate fraud that includes technology, team member training and collaboration with law enforcement. We also work with a number of outside partners like the National Cyber Forensics Training Alliance, which brings more than 70 retailers together to track, prevent and address these types of crimes. We’ve increased in-store signage to warn our guests of common gift card scams, and we’ve heightened team member education so they can keep an eye out for potentially distressed guests buying gift cards and intervene as needed. We also continue to implement new technology to prevent gift cards from being abused by fraudsters.”
The Chicago Better Business Bureau offers the following tips:
- Government agencies requesting payment. No government agency ever requests money through gift cards.
- Statements that buying gift cards is a safe way to make a payment. Providing the numbers for a gift card is like sending cash, and the money is rarely recoverable. Gift card payment requests are a big red flag for a scam.
- Keep the receipt when buying a gift card. Keep the physical card as well. These may help prove that the card was paid for and activated if problems arise later.
- Inspect the card carefully before buying it to be sure it has not been tampered with. Some scammers open the card to get the numbers on the back so that they can take the money when the card is later activated.