No, you can't bail someone out of jail with Walmart gift cards – it's a scam

Jails don't accept gift cards as bail.
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Walmart gift cards can't bail someone out of jail.

Two people in central Minnesota were scammed out of $3,000 apiece after they got calls from people claiming to be family members, explaining they needed gift cards for bail.

So the Stearns County Sheriff's Office to put out a warning, reiterating that jails don't trade in gift cards.

GoMN asked Cpt. Jon Lentz on Monday: Is there any situation in which Stearns County would accept gift cards for bail?

"No," he said.

And the warning put it this way: "Jails do not deal with gift cards and would not operate in that manner."

It's a type of scam that's been around for a few years, though it isn't always specifically Walmart gift cards – iTunes gift cards have been common nationally. Sometimes it involves bail, sometimes the scammer talks about hospital bills that need to be paid.

Either way, Lentz explained, they'll say something like, "Hey it's your favorite grandkid" – the victim usually responds with a name, and the scammer takes it and runs, explaining they're in some type of trouble and don't want their parents or friends to find out, so can they lend a hand?

In these two Stearns County cases – both of which happened Friday – the person on the phone asked for gift cards from Walmart, Target or Best Buy. The victims went out, bought the gift cards, gave up the info, and that was it. That money is gone.

"With all of these gift cards, the minute you go and make that purchase and then provide that information to somebody over the phone, you know, in a matter of minutes, they take care of accessing these gift cards, downloading the dollar amounts and then sending them on to something else," Lentz said. "And there's almost absolutely no way to get that stuff back."

Double-check if it seems fishy

So if you get a call from someone who needs to be bailed out or needs money for a hospital, and you're not sure about it, what are good ways to make sure it's legit?

Lentz says first, call that person directly – you've probably got their phone number, so call and see if they pick up. Or call a family member of that person, and see if they've heard from them recently.

You can also call the jail or hospital directly. Find out where the person supposedly is, look up the information online, then call and explain the situation. Ask to verify if someone is in custody, or if someone is a registered patient. You could also check the online jail roster (though those aren't usually updated in real-time, so be careful).

Anyone who thinks they've been targeted or victimized by a scam should call their local law enforcement. Lentz also noted with tax filing season underway, IRS phone scams are going to really start popping up – so be wary about alleged calls from IRS people saying you owe back taxes immediately.

Phone scams usually target seniors, the National Council on Aging says, because people expect them to just have money sitting in accounts.

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