Woman Shopping
(Photo by Gustavo Fring/ Pexels)

A gift card scam is currently preying on Instacart shoppers - exploiting not just buyers but also delivery personnel.

This is how the scam unfolds: A scammer, posing as a customer, orders just a few minor items, like a drink or a piece of fruit. Once an Instacart shopper accepts the order, the scammer (pretending to be the customer) messages the shopper and inquires about adding one or more gift cards, frequently with a high value of $100 (£79.83) or more, to the order.

Next, the customer asks the shopper to send the gift card code, allowing them to spend the money before the shopper finishes paying. After receiving the code, the scammer can falsely claim they never ordered the gift card.

Since the sale has already been concluded, Instacart or the delivery person might be held responsible for the cost. Additionally, the delivery worker faces the risk of Instacart deactivating their account for violating company policy.

Gift Card Trap: How Scammers Target Instacart Shoppers

A scammer on Reddit detailed their attempt in September, posing as a customer who needed a $150 (£119.75) Vanilla gift card (a type of Visa prepaid card) "for my dad's birthday, but I couldn't go out." The post claims the scammer even offered a $100 (£79.83) tip to incentivise the shopper.

The Reddit poster recounted their experience: "Got my first scam order today!" They further explained in the comments that they contacted Instacart support to intervene and cancel the order upon receiving the gift card request.

The repercussions of this scam extend beyond Instacart workers. A TikTok user, @itsjwest, shared a video in August detailing how their account was compromised. According to itsjwest, hackers ordered through their account for a Slim Jim beef stick and a high-value $100 Xbox gift card from a Walgreens store.

The delivery arrived on his doorstep in a bag, but it contained a disturbing surprise. The gift card's security code, typically hidden with a scratchable layer, had been revealed. The driver, likely in cahoots with the hacker, had scratched off the security code on the gift card and presumably forwarded it to the hacker in exchange for a share of the stolen value.

"He tells me that he was having a conversation with the guy, and he tells me that he was tipping him $58 to go ahead and scratch off the code and send to him before actually making the delivery," the TikTok user says in the video. "How is that not a red flag to anybody?"

Last fall, Heidi Bleau, an Instacart shopper in Massachusetts who uses the app to supplement her marketing income for her son's college fund, encountered a similar situation. After accepting an order to shop and deliver from Walgreens, she received a request to add a gift card to the purchase.

Instacart Gift cards scam
Scammers target Instacart shoppers with fake gift card requests. They trick shoppers into buying gift cards with stolen codes. This hurts both shoppers and customers. Wikimedia Commons

Red flags immediately went up, Bleau recounted. "Within 30 seconds, I got a message about buying the Vanilla Visa gift card," she said. She attempted to call the customer directly, but their account indicated a preference for text communication.

Unable to reach Instacart support by phone to discuss her concerns about a potential scam, Bleau wisely terminated the order by closing the app.

Bleau's son, also an Instacart shopper, has recently encountered at least four similar requests. The source of these requests remains unclear; they could be fraudulent customers or scammers exploiting compromised accounts.

In one instance, a cologne initially included in the order was replaced with a $150 gift card upon the "customer's" request. Instacart allows shoppers to fulfil such "special requests" by overriding the system and adding a custom price for non-catalogue items found in-store.

However, a screenshot of the company policy obtained by Business Insider clearly prohibits shoppers from purchasing gift cards as part of an order.

How This Scam Affects Customers Too

"It's impacting consumers who have to deal with the fraudulent charges on their credit card, but even more, Instacart has to be seeing massive chargebacks, yet I don't see they are doing anything about this," the shopper told BI.

Reinforcing their policy, an Instacart spokesperson clarified to BI, "Customers are not able to order gift cards through the Instacart platform or place a special request for a gift card via chat." Shoppers are also explicitly instructed to refrain from purchasing gift cards for customers.

Scammers have been devising new ways to steal innocent victim's money for a while now. In some cases, however, things go differently than they plan. A Chinese live-streamer's attempt to deceive viewers backfired earlier this month.

They were caught inflating their viewer count artificially to amass a significant sum (3 million yuan, approximately £332435.75) in under four months and consequently faced imprisonment.

The rise of AI-powered tools has introduced new concerns. A 2023 research study revealed that cybercriminals could exploit functionalities within AI chatbots like ChatGPT. This allows them to build their own AI assistants for malicious purposes.