Google may have accidentally approved an ad for a Target gift card scam

Most of us check our gift card balances online (because who keeps those receipts that tell us how much money we have left?), which makes a seeming oversight by Google all the worse. It appears that Google accidentally approved a prominent ad for a fake Target gift card credit checker designed to steal your money.

A Reddit user On r/cockdesign discovered the error when doing a google search for ‘Target gift card balance’ on mobile, and found that the very first result is an ad titled ‘Check Gift Card Balance – Target’. Only the site isn’t a Target – it’s actually a site called ‘bristolhirevan’. The ad description says you can check your gift card balance “instantly” and it also offers “all sizes of vans to suit your needs” – how can you get more legit than that? My colleague Sean Hollister and I found the same fake ad while searching for the exact phrase ourselves.

Okay, while the site’s name doesn’t sound convincing at all, the interface certainly looks like the real one, though the actual Target site requires you to log in to check your gift card balance, while this fake site doesn’t. In addition, the only things wrong with the webpage are the URL, which still has the domain “bristolhirevan” and the fact that every single link on the page leads to the real Target homepage, despite the promise to link to a weekly advertisement or a gift list. If you were really in a hurry (and somehow distracted enough to ignore the van mention), you could accidentally enter your gift card number and security code here, causing it to be stolen.

Gift card scams seem to be on the rise. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that victims of gift card scams lost a total of $148 million within the first nine months of 2021 — more than all of 2020. Target gift cards are apparently the scammers’ cards of choice, as FTC data shows people were ripped off last year out of $35 million worth of Target gift cards, more than double the amount from any other gift card brand.

As stated by the FTC, gift card scams often take place over the phone, with the scammer impersonating an employee of a company like Google or Amazon (or even someone from a federal agency) demanding payment from the victim in the form of a gift card. However, fake balance checker sites like this one often hide in plain sight – apparently even as ads on Google.

A report from 2020 by beeping computer draws attention to sites posing as Target gift card balance checking pages, noting that Target is actually one of the most popular sites for scammers to replicate. The edge contacted Google with a request for comment on how this scam slipped through the ad review process and whether it will be removed but did not get back immediately.

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