The other day my dad went to buy some house supplies. Just as he was about to checkout, another customer offered him a gift card in exchange for cash at a discount (the gift card was given as store credit for a previous item he returned). After some thought my dad agreed and, after verifying the balance, paid him the cash. My dad then purchased the supplies with the card, afterwards which still had a substantial balance.

He explained what happened after he picked me up and asked if I saw any problems. At first I saw no issue with this: he got cashback from the store, so the customer could not have gotten any personal information. It might have been possible to lookup (future) purchases, but so could a casual observer.

But then the cynic in me came out: Was it possible to purchase something online using a gift card? I checked the website FAQ and sure enough, it was possible.

However I wasn’t too concerned. If this was a scam all along then the money would already be long gone. Furthermore the way that my dad told the story made the other customer sound like he just wanted the liquidity of cash and didn’t have any malicious intent.

We drove back to the store and checked the balance of the card. It was the correct amount. Since we were already at the store and didn’t want to take any chances, we bought some more items to use up the balance (we couldn’t exchange for a new gift card).


As uneventful (albeit random) this story is, I think there were a few interesting learnings here in no particular order.

I was aware of the market where people sell gift cards at a discount online but this was the first time I’ve witnessed it in person. I’ve never really trusted online markets because, if anything went wrong, it can be very frustrating to find someone who can be responsible for the loss. However this risk is significantly reduced if the transaction is in person, and by personally verifying the card balance.

I thought it was unfortunate that the other customer had to sell the gift card at a discount. However there was no way of knowing his reasoning and that was no business of mine. Ultimately it was his decision to offer the balance at the discounted rate. What mattered was that both parties were content with the deal.

It was also interesting to think of this transaction from the view of an investor. Suppose the offer was $200 for a $250 gift card. The potential return would be 25%. Of course there is also the potential of losing 100%, but everything has a risk. What would you have done?

From a developer’s perspective, it was kind of fun to try to think outside the box. For me when dealing with these kinds of questions, I find it easier to just assume there was a solution/scam, which would allow me to focus on how it could have been done.

I try to start with the assumption of good intentions when dealing with strangers. I think this type of behaviour is increasingly important in the society that we have today. In a way, this is the continuous version of prisoner’s dilemma. However, as the saying goes, it is equally important to “trust but verify”.

Thank you to whoever sold that gift card.