Unfortunately, we can’t help with closed Amazon accounts

What is up with Amazon.com’s gift card program? Scott Kimura wants to know.

Kimura asked for help to unlock his $1,100 gift card account with Amazon, which showed an unauthorized redemption by someone named “Alli.” But Amazon’s agents refused to give him any information about what appeared to be a fraud. One told him to read Amazon’s terms and conditions — which are not favorable to Kimura or any other owner of Amazon’s gift cards.

Our advocates and forum have been hearing from a large number of Amazon gift card owners who suddenly find that their balances have disappeared – and Amazon won’t return their money.

It happened to Carlos Becerra. And to Ander Guzman. Brothers Steve and Romaine Campbell experienced it too, as did Ty Osburn and Louis Morgan. And those are just a few of the persons facing this problem.

Amazon first notifies them that their gift card accounts are being closed. That is the only time they have contact with a human being at Amazon. Any subsequent contacts are met with automated responses only.

Some of these gift card holders have written or called our executive contacts in the hope of getting their accounts reopened and balances restored — but with no success.

Unfortunately for anyone stuck with a suddenly unusable Amazon gift card, we can’t help reopen your account.

It’s not that we don’t want to help — or that we don’t feel your pain. We agree that consumers like you, who acquired gift cards from Amazon in good faith, should have the right to use the money in those accounts to make purchases on Amazon.com within the limits of the terms and conditions.

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And it’s not that we haven’t reached out to Amazon on behalf of numerous consumers facing this issue. We have, but unfortunately, Amazon has been no more responsive to our advocates than to those consumers.

On the surface, it certainly appears to be extremely poor customer service to suddenly close accounts without warning or explanation.

But Amazon’s gift card terms and conditions disclaim all liability for problems with gift cards. The terms and conditions even indicate that Amazon has the right to revoke them at will:

The risk of loss and title for Gift Cards pass to the purchaser upon our electronic transmission of the Gift Card to the purchaser or designated recipient, or our delivery to the carrier, whichever is applicable. We are not responsible if any Gift Card is lost, stolen, or destroyed, or if your Amazon.com Balance or any Gift Card is used without your permission. …

We make no warranties, express or implied, with respect to gift cards or your amazon.com balance, including without limitation, any express or implied warranty of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. In the event a gift card is non-functional, your sole remedy, and our sole liability, will be the replacement of that gift card.

In other words, Amazon makes no promise to begin with that your gift card balance will ever be available, and if you acquire a gift card, you do so at your own risk. This seems to particularly be the case with owners of high-value gift cards ($100 or more).

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Amazon is not the only company that has not been helpful to owners of gift cards with missing balances. Holders of Target gift cards have faced the same issue.

We don’t understand why these companies won’t stand behind their gift cards. All we can do is warn our readers not to use gift cards as electronic piggy banks. One day your money may be there; the next it will be gone — forever. And there’s nothing we can do to get it back for you.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t understand how or why people get huge gift card balances. That actually makes me suspicious, whether it is a warranted suspicion or not. I have sent people gift cards of $50 or so, and not ever seen problems with it. I don’t think there has been any gift card activity on my account other than that.

  • sirwired

    Yes, Amazon should be responsible for unauthorized access to your personal Amazon account. But beyond that? I don’t see this as their problem.

    If you have a gift card, and you find out when you go to apply it that it’s already been spent? How is Amazon supposed to know who is telling the truth here? I don’t blame them for washing their hands of the situation.

    (On another note, how does one obtain $1,100 in Amazon Gift Cards?)

  • AJPeabody

    Amazon is only reacting to fraud. It cannot be the guarantor of the card value if the owner is defrauded. It refuses to guarantee that Amazon,s data systems won’t be defrauded. And I am sure there are somewhat iffy ways of garnering Amazon card values by consumers who have figured out how to game the system. Gift cards are not credit cards and have none of the expected protections.

  • DChamp56

    And IF it were someone at Amazon doing this, it’s not their problem, and you’re still screwed. Nice.

  • AJPeabody

    In theory, if a very large online money pot is compromised, instead of stripping as much as possible in a short time, a bad actor could take only occasional smaller amounts to avoid sparking an investigation. The bad actor need not be internal. Gift card theft is a nice target for the prudent thief.

  • Jeff W.

    Another factor is where were these gift cards purchased? Directly from Amazon? A grocery store? Or one of those websites where you can get gift cards below the face value? If one rotten gift card is added to an account, it pollutes the whole account.

    There is a whole black market for gift cards. And people have taken stolen credit cards to purchase gift cards in an attempt to make dirty money clean.

    Very complicated and I can see why Amazon (or Target) cannot determine the scams from the legitimate problems.

  • Kerr

    Multiple gifts and/or purchases?

  • Charles

    There are many legitimate reasons why someone might have a large gift card balance on Amazon.com. Maybe they got married and a lot of guests gave them gift cards as a wedding present. Maybe they won a contest (I’ve seen some of those) But, most of the time those large gift card balances are due to some scam the account holder is pulling. There’s an easy way to tell: do they indicate why they have such a large balance? Anyone with that large a balance would certainly say “Grandpa sent me a $1000 gift card so I can buy a computer for school” or something like that. The scam artists don’t really want to say “I run this scam where people pay me with Amazon gift cards, then I don’t send them what they ordered, which is why I have such a high balance. Business is good right now; can you get me my ill gotten gains back?” And, as an editorial suggestion, I would never publish an article like this where they don’t have a reasonable explanation for having an $1100 gift card balance!

  • James

    So, three of eight comments (so far) are accusing the original poster of fraud, solely based on the size of the balance. Nice community.

    Amazon sells their gift cards with various values as default values, up to $2000. $1100 does not seem to be an absurd value for such a card.

  • John Keahey

    If they have no responsibility or willingness to get to the bottom of the problem, perhaps they should do away with gift cards. Playing roulette with a customer’s money is a lousy way to do businesses.

  • sirwired

    Amazon sold a gift card, that gift card was cashed in. All they know is that somebody claiming to be the rightful owner is saying it belongs to them instead. How could they possibly determine who the correct owner is?

    If you want to use a gambling analogy… Amazon is running the cash window at a casino and somebody cashes in $5k in chips and walks out the door, a strap of Benjamins in-hand. Somebody else comes up two hours later and says that those chips belonged to them. How is it the casino’s job to figure that out? How could they? That’s a matter for the justice system.

    Think of unredeemed gift cards like cash; it’s the owner’s job to keep track of it.

  • Rebecca

    I have yet to hear of a case where there is legitimate reason to have somehow accumulated several hundred or even thousands of dollars in gift cards. The only legitimate reason someone would purchase a large amount is for some sort of gift or employee bonus program. And those are broken down into smaller, reasonable amounts. One person isn’t redeeming them all.

    The only time this ever happens is when a consumer is trying to run a points game or purchase second hand gift cards. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. I can’t possibly imagine someone not knowing a purchase of a second hand gift card is risky. There’s a recourse through the merchant if it’s bought on a gift card site. And as for the account now being closed at Amazon? I again return to play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

    Consumer advocates lose credibility if try to help people playing these games. Like it or not, that consumer is hustling. I won’t go so far as to say it’s an outright scam. But it’s a hustle. There’s plenty of people that are spending their hard earned money and legitimately getting screwed. No need to muddy the waters and help the hustlers.

  • Michael__K

    Except the chips are electronic here and Amazon is responsible for much of the access control to the identifying (‘secret’) key.

    If a cashier hands over $5k in cash to someone with chips, and someone else arrives over two hours later with their another set of chips with the same serial numbers, then they can’t just wash their hands. They *are* responsible for figuring out whose chips are counterfeit and whose chips are genuine….

    In this case, absent other evidence of someone breaking into the customer’s account, why would you automatically assume that the customer is the party who was compromised, as opposed to Amazon being the party which was compromised?

  • Michael__K

    If there is no legitimate reason to accumulate so much in gift cards, then what is the legitimate reason for Amazon selling individual gift cards in those amounts?

  • Jeff W.

    There was no indication that this was an individual gift card with that amount. Some retailers will allow you to combine / transfer amounts from one gift card to another.

    This can be handy when you have a small balance on one card, like a few dollars, and transfer that to a card with a larger balance.

    It is possible that the $1100 balance was a result of such activity.

  • sirwired

    The gift “card” exists as a string of random letters (long enough that it is exceeding unlikely you will get a valid one by guessing before Amazon locks you out.). How would you suggest that Amazon verify who is the “genuine” owner of a string of numbers?

    If somebody else has your numbers, the most likely explanation is they stole them from you in some way or another. (Email compromise, double-selling, whatever) That is certainly more likely than Amazon’s payment systems being breached.

  • Byron Cooper

    Most, if not all of these cases about gift cards appear to be posters who buy gift cards from third party sources. If the gift cards were purchased from a legitimate source like CVS, Safeway, or Amazon itself, the customer could go back to the point of purchase. Some of the bank cash back cards give rewards in the form of gift cards. Once again, there would be recourse if the gift cards did not have the stated value. Neither Amazon nor Target should be responsible for third party sales or scams involving gift cards.

  • Byron Cooper

    I don’t think there is any indication that the original poster committed fraud. I just don’t think that Amazon should be responsible for a gift card unless Amazon sold the card directly. If the OP bought the gift card from a third party, he or she should go back to the person who sold them the card.

  • Michael__K

    Someone with inside knowledge or access or sophisticated hackers.

  • Michael__K

    “unlikely you will get a valid one by guessing before Amazon locks you out.”

    This assumes that Amazon is actually taking such due diligence steps. Which I hope they are and probably they are but we don’t know for certain. (And this also implies they DO have some more responsibilities then you originally allowed for…)

    And hackers might still defeat attempts to track their repeated guesses, e.g. by using proxy servers or by injecting their guesses through unrelated malware.

  • Annie M

    I had a chat with my 20 year old grandson about this last night. He told me that there is a lot of fraud that people are trying to pull over the internet with using Bitcoin and buying these gift cards. He explained how these scams work and how they cannot be traced back when they use Bitcoin. However it works, they get these twenty somethings that are gamers and play these video games online to do transactions and buy cards with artificial money. Some of them re-sell these on the secondary online market and as soon as the card sells, they have all the info on the card number and security codes and bleed the cards before the new buyer has a chance to use them. I bet you that if you questioned these people on how they paid for these cards, you would see none of them were legitimately purchased going to a store and buying a card. They were purchased with Bitcoin or through re-sellers of gift cards.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I think we shouldn’t conflate two separate issues, the size of the balance and whether the balance includes 3rd party/stolen/improper/something else gift cards. If balance size alone is the reason Amazon is closing the accounts, there is a problem. But if Amazon closes accounts because the assets were already spent because the 3rd party site sellers stole them immediately after the OP purchased them, Amazon can’t fix that because they can’t tell, in advance, who is the bona fide owner.

    I suppose the OP could file a civil suit against the unknown 3rd party site sellers, file for discovery with Amazon for the names of the asserted criminal actors, and then sue those individuals, but that is probably not worth it for $1100.

  • sirwired

    Let’s do some math: I just checked the Amazon gift code format (via an old code), it’s 14 alphanumerics; if we drop 0/O, 34^14th is 2,750,000,000,000,000,000,000 (2.75 sextillion) possible codes. If Amazon has the ridiculous number of 300,000,000 unredeemed credits at any one time (enough for every US citizen to have a gift card sitting idly in their sock drawer that they’ve forgotten to apply to their account), that means that they would have to try an average of 9 Trillion codes before finding a single one that works. And somehow do this without Amazon shutting it down for the obvious attack it is. And that’s just one code.

    What’s more likely:
    A) That the OP got taken up in a gift card scam (of which there are many permutations)/had it stolen/whatever Or:
    B) That Amazon, the largest web retailer on the planet (and one of the largest IT vendors) somehow has the world’s most incompetent security staff and they have several rows of servers that do nothing but reject bad gift code requests, while they do nothing about it. (And, for reference, in 2012, the entire credit card industry processed 73.9B transactions. So these super-hackers would somehow have to convince Amazon to blindly reject 10 times the annual transaction volume of the entire credit card industry. For one lousy code.)

    I’d say that A is just a hair more likely.

    If your choices are between something that’s extremely common vs. something extremely far-fetched, sometimes you just have to go with the common guess until there’s some scintilla of evidence otherwise.

    I’m still waiting on your idea on how Amazon is supposed to determine the rightful owner of a string of letters and numbers.

  • Michael__K

    A quick web search shows that a bunch of Amazon customers have reported gift cards being hijacked by the exact same email address over a period of years, and apparently Amazon has not put a stop to it…

    I give them some credit for hosting the community which discusses the issue, but that sure seems like evidence that they are not doing all the due diligence you assume they are.

    Paradoxically, we’ve also seen the opposite problem with gift card cases where the merchant is over-vigilant. If, say, a customer buys one compromised second hand gift, that should not give the merchant license to cancel all of that customer’s other legitimate gift cards.

    As for how Amazon (or any merchant) is supposed to determine the rightful owner… they could use multi-factor authentication and require all transfers to be processed through them if they wanted to. Of course that would make gift cards much less convenient but it would eliminate a lot of the fraud.

  • Rebecca

    If someone purchased 1 single gift card directly from Amazon and that balance disappeared, I’ll gladly print this out and eat it whole. Because it didn’t happen.

  • sirwired

    I looked through that thread. I don’t see any sign that it’s anything but normal methods of fraud. (Most of the e-Gift-Card cases are likely compromised Amazon and/or e-mail accounts and the bad physical cards usually seem to have obvious physical problems.) (And some of the posts in the thread were about fraud committed using gift cards, not fraud being used to steal the balance.)

    As far as Multi-Factor authentication goes? They DO offer it already; but you need to enable it on your account. That’ll cover much of the e-gift card fraud. Don’t see how that helps out physical cards though.

  • Michael__K

    So it’s legitimate to buy a single $1,000 gift card for yourself? But it’s not legitimate to receive two separate $500 gift cards as gifts, where you don’t know if the gifters purchased the cards directly from Amazon or got them second hand?

  • Michael__K

    There’s no particular red flag indicating that these customers’ own accounts were all compromised either. How do you prove that your email or Amazon account wasn’t compromised?

    My point is that Amazon received many reports of fraud over a long period of time about gift cards getting hijacked by the exact same email address and they apparently did nothing to stop it…. And paradoxically other customers report their entire accounts getting locked and canceled without explanation, and then radio silence.

    I had a problem with a Home Depot gift card a while back. I originally received a $450 gift card to compensate for a big snafu with a kitchen renovation order. I subsequently made a purchase with that card, for about $100, which got canceled, and they automatically refunded the purchase to a separate, new gift card (they claim their systems don’t have the ability to refund to the original gift card). By the time I opened their refund email with the new card information for the first time to print it out, it had no balance. When I contacted customer service, I learned the new card had already been used, in a physical store, multiple time zones away.

    So how do you explain this? It seems extraordinarily unlikely that my email account was compromised. Besides the fact that I never opened it, why would the thief not steal, among other things, my first Home Depot gift card, in the same email account, which still had about 3x as much value as the new card? [Home Depot eventually issued me a replacement card].

    Regarding multi-factor authentication: setting that up on your Amazon account doesn’t protect the single-factor authentication gift cards you receive as gifts.

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