This week, the FTC launched a new interactive tool to view its aggregated consumer complaint data. Previously released annually, data collected through the Consumer Sentinel Network will now be reported quarterly. The FTC’s data tool is interactive and allows users to narrow the data by state, type of fraud, contact method, age of victim, amount of loss, and more. With just a few clicks, you can see that consumers in Virginia have lost $19.6 million to fraud so far this year, surpassing last year’s total of $15.1 million by 30%—and it’s only mid-October! The data tool also helps explain why so many robocalls around the nation’s capital seem to be for vacation scams—Maryland and Virginia are ranked #1 and #2 for reports of travel, vacation, and timeshare fraud. The tool contains quarterly and annual data going back to 2014, permitting users to view trends over time on very specific issues. The FTC hopes its new quarterly data releases will provide consumers with more timely information on consumer complaints and the types of scams and other fraud they face.

In that spirit, the FTC also announced its new Consumer Protection Data Spotlight, touted as a “deep dive” into the consumer complaint data to highlight emerging or existing trends. (No word on how often the Spotlight will be published, but we are guessing that it may accompany each new quarterly data release.) This reporting is eerily similar to how the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau used to publicize its consumer complaint data.

The first edition describes the explosive growth of gift cards as a payment mechanism for potential fraud. In 2015, the complaints involved payment through a gift card or reload card only 7% of the time, but now involve 26% of these payment cards—a 270% increase in only three years. Notably, the rise of gift cards as a payment mechanism has not increased uniformly across all types of alleged fraud; imposter scams account for 80% of the gift card payment reports. According to the FTC, gift cards are growing in popularity because the payments are fast, largely irreversible, and preserve anonymity.

The FTC has tips for consumers, retailers, and gift card issuers to combat this type of fraud.

  • The message to consumers is simple: When someone demands to be paid only with a gift card, which may be a scam.
  • The message to retailers: Be suspicious if a customer buys several gift cards and seems evasive when asked as to why.
  • Gift card program managers and issuers: You should warn consumers about fraud and give them an easy way to report it. The cards that have emerged as the favorites for scammers have already done so.

While these messages do not impose an affirmative duty on retailers, program managers, issuers, or other vendors, it does seem as if the FTC is laying the ground work to do just that by putting the industry on notice of how its product is being used to facilitate consumer scams or fraud. This approach seems similar to the tactics used by the FTC against Western Union and MoneyGram to address similar concerns with a payment device believed by the FTC to facilitate fraud.