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Google might’ve accidentally approved an ad for a Target gift card scam

Google might’ve accidentally approved an ad for a Target gift card scam


Google Search prominently displayed an ad for a phony gift card balance checker

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Photo by Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

Most of us check our gift card balances online (because who actually keeps those receipts that tell us how much money we have left on them?), making an apparent oversight by Google all the worse. It appears that Google inadvertently approved a prominent ad for a phony Target gift card balance checker that’s meant to steal your funds, although it has since removed the ad.

A Reddit user on r/assholedesign discovered the slip-up when searching Google for “Target gift card balance” on mobile and found that the very first result is an ad, titled “Check Gift Card Balance - Target.” Only, the site isn’t Target — it’s actually a site called “bristolhirevan.” The ad’s description says it will let you check your gift card balance “immediately” and that it also offers “all van sizes to fit your needs” — how can you get more legit than that? My colleague Sean Hollister and I found the same phony ad when searching for the exact phrase ourselves.

Okay, while the name of the site doesn’t sound convincing at all, its interface sure looks like the real thing, although the actual Target site requires you to sign in to check your gift card balance, while this fake site doesn’t. Besides that, the only things that are off about the webpage are the URL, which still has the “bristolhirevan” domain and the fact that every single link on the page leads to the real Target homepage, despite promising to link to a weekly ad or a gift registry. If you were really in a rush (and were somehow distracted enough to ignore the mention of vans), you just might accidentally enter your gift card’s number and security code here, resulting in it getting stolen.

“This behavior directly violates our policies against phishing, and we immediately suspended the account and removed the ads,” Google spokesperson Christa Muldoon told The Verge. “We are continuously adjusting our enforcement mechanisms to prevent this type of abuse.” Muldoon also noted that Google typically suspends or bans the bad actor’s account, and in this case, the Target scammer was suspended.

Fortunately, the ad has been taken down, which I’ve confirmed after doing another search for “Target gift card balance” — the real Target balance checker has taken the ad’s place. In a statement to The Verge, Target spokesperson Brian Harper-Tibaldo also noted that the company “reported the activity to Google” and is “working to get the fraudulent website taken down.”

Gift card scams appear to be on the rise. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that victims of gift card scams lost a total of $148 million within the first nine months of 2021 — more than all of 2020. Target gift cards are apparently scammers’ cards of choice, as FTC data shows people were scammed out of $35 million worth of Target gift cards last year, more than double the amount of any other gift card brand.

As pointed out by the FTC, gift card scams often take place over the phone, with the scammer pretending to be an employee of a company like Google or Amazon (or even someone from a federal agency) who demands the victim make a payment in the form of a gift card. However, fake balance checker sites like these often hide in plain sight — apparently even as ads on Google. A 2020 report from Bleeping Computer draws attention to sites that impersonate Target gift card balance checker pages, noting that Target is actually one of the most popular sites for scammers to replicate.

Update January 18th 11:33AM ET: Updated to add statements from Google and Target spokespersons and noted that the ad has since been removed.