Protecting yourself

Foiled AmEx gift card scam lands man behind bars

Jay MacDonald

Remember that classic opening scene from “The Grifters” where John Cusack tries to con a busy bartender out of $10 by presenting a $20 bill for change and then substituting a $10 in its place?

There’s a grifter here in the Tampa Bay area where I live who figured out a way to pull a similar stunt with a $25 American Express gift card. St. Petersburg Police say he scammed Bay Area bars and restaurants out of more than $20,000 over seven months before they nabbed him.Foiled AmEx gift card scam lands man behind bars

The grifter’s modus operandi went something like this: He would order a $2 beer, then ask the bartender if he could charge a $15 or $20 tip on his AmEx gift card, then get some of that in cash so he could play the joint’s jukebox or video games. Since bartenders love receiving a generous tip on a cheap pour, few objected.

When you purchase food or beverages with any kind of card, you usually receive a receipt with a blank line at the bottom where you can write in your tip amount, right?

What the grifter knew that his victims didn’t is this: If someone using an AmEx gift card tips more than 20 percent, the establishment is supposed to swipe it a second time to verify the hefty tip. Police say the grifter apparently scoped out establishments beforehand to determine which ones followed this procedure and which ones did not.

Merchants didn’t even know they’d been scammed until months later, when American Express notified them that the tips had not been authorized.

Although he didn’t receive the baseball bat to the solar plexus that Cusack does in the film, this grifter is being held in lieu of $40,000 bail on two counts of scheming to defraud and one count of petty theft.

No word yet on whether he tried to post bail with an AmEx gift card.

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  • Paul Rytima

    Similar thing here at a big box retail store… guy uses an AMEX gift card to purchase appliances then cancels the order before taking delivery. When processing the refund, the system automatically prompts the refund tender as cash since we do not have a way to reload said card. Dude walks out with $1600 cash, but not the hard-earned type that you and I are familiar with.