NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – Gift cards are popular and convenient, not just as gifts but for crooks as well.

“We see two scenarios. One is when somebody gives or receives a gift card and realizes there are no funds on it,” said Kathy Stokes, the director of fraud prevention programs with AARP.

Stokes says there’s a scam where criminals are manipulating cards in the store and draining them at the point of sale.

“When you go to buy that card, they get a ping on a computer algorithm. The other piece of it that we’re looking at, is when a scammer convinces a target that they owe some financial obligation and the easiest way to deal with it is to purchase a gift card and share the numbers off the back of that card.”

Remember, gift cards are for gifts, not for payments.

“You can’t use a gift card to pay for a past due utility bill or back taxes from the IRS or solve a problem with the social security administration. Gift cards are not legal tender in that way so anytime somebody seeks to convince you to pay for something with a gift card, it is a scam.”

Stokes believes the safest way to purchase a gift card is to go directly to the website of the card issuer. But of course, sometimes last minute shopping doesn’t allow for that. “If you need to do it in a store, its ok just a matter of being thoughtful about it.”

Here’s another tip, do not just take the first gift card from the rack, pull some from the back and take a close look to see if it physically looks like it’s been manipulated. Also, when you purchase a card, hold onto the receipt and register the card if you have that option.