Gift cards are popular Christmas gifts to give, to receive, and to scam

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) — According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend about $27.5 billion this holiday season.

"Everybody loves those gift cards," Julie Wheeler, with the Better Business Bureau, laughed.

In fact, the average consumer will purchase three to four gift cards over the Christmas season — and that means there's money to be made for criminals.

Wheeler explained how to make sure your gift card hasn't been tampered with before you purchase it.

"Most of them now do have a packaging to keep people from writing down the card numbers. If they don't have that, they're going have a scratch-off area for a PIN. You want to make sure that has not been removed."

Websites have also become tools for cybercriminals to offer gift cards at highly discounted prices, but buyers beware.

"If you go and buy gift cards through Craigslist, Ebay, or a site that isn't vetted and doesn't provide protections, people can list the cards and they can even have value on them," Wheeler said. "You can even verify that value, but as soon as you provide money or funds for that card, they can still clear that balance."

Wheeler said your best bet is to just purchase your gift cards directly from the store or restaurant you want. And if you get a gift card, don't forget to spend it.

"Last stats I saw, I think were something like only 85% of gift cards are redeemed," Wheeler said, adding that many times gift cards are simply misplaced before they can be spent.

"Treat them like cash," she emphasized. "You've got to make sure you keep up with them. Don't throw them away. Make sure that if you get gift cards for Christmas, that you put them in a safe place so they don't get thrown away with wrapping."

As if that wasn't common enough, it's also common for people to give gift cards to places the gift card receiver doesn't even use.

"You want to make sure you know who you're giving it and where they actually enjoy shopping," Wheeler said. "Especially because you don't want to spend that money and then have it sitting on a shelf."

Especially when the National Retail Federation has found that the average gift card is about $47, that's a lot of money going unused.

"When you're talking the millions and millions of dollars that we're talking about for gift cards, that's a huge amount. So make sure you get them something they can use."

The National Retail Federation found the top five favorite gift cards are for restaurants, department stores, coffee shops, Visa or MasterCard, and entertainment.