Inside the Shady World of Cheap iTunes Gift Cards
It all started so innocently: I recently purchased an iPod Nano as a Christmas present, and also wanted to include the gift of music. A casual search on eBay led to attention-alarming auctions shouting at me, tantalizing me with the possibility of getting iTunes gift cards for CHEAP! How cheap? Apparently, if I shelled out US $5-8, I could get a "guide" with info telling me where to purchase these cards for up to "80% Off!!", one listing yelled. Yet another auction cautioned me while hawking its own ware, "How to NOT get scammed w itunes gift card code auctions." What was going on here? (See also: How to Use Up Remaining Balances on Prepaid Gift Cards)
I had to admit, the in-your-face attitude and numerous typographical errors turned me off — and I'm too thrifty to plunk down a few bucks to be told what URL to type in. (Nevermind the fact that some of these discount cards are listed on eBay…duh, how obvious.) So I did the most natural next thing: a Google search, and soon dove deeper into the dubiousness.
Several minutes later, I collected numerous pages pointing to iOffer, sort of like eBay, but a rockier road in terms of usability. Searching for "itunes 200" yielded numerous matches for $200 gift cards as low as $38. Alas, that seller was on vacation, so I had to settle for a $47 one. I placed an offer and watched the screen anxiously, refreshing the page and also checking my email. I noticed this seller was quite an inconsistent replier, attending to the newest offers bidding on his quantity of 50+ cards while not getting to first-come offers until much later. At last, I was served up an invoice, and PayPal'ed it through. A few minutes later, I received an email with the code. Terse, cryptic, and from a Chinese email address, it read:
Hi , here is the code .
pls use it asap.
and pls leave me a feedback.
Too good to be true? I pondered. Why the urgency to use it? Only one way to find out. After I refreshed the page again and noticed the hotbed of activity piling up, I mused "They must really want their music!" and booted up the iTunes Store myself. I plunked in the code, and without hesitation, it was credited. My account balance now stood at $200.00, and as any music fan would naturally do, I began snapping up tracks.
But is there a darker side to this? Some would say yes. Feeling ethically conflicted, my curiosity got the better of me and I dug deeper. More info-nuggets were just a google away, such as:
- US iTunes gift certificates bought with stolen cards
- People on Ebay are selling itunes gift cards for %40 off? — Interesting behind-the-scenes report.
For a brief moment, my pupils dilated as wide as Dramatic Lemur's. Was I now linked to criminal activity? I don't want to be a knowing participant in the cycle of identity theft and fraud. Alas, it's hard to say.
I contacted over a dozen of these gift card bulk sellers. A few replied with unhelpful or cryptic answers. I chalked part of it up to their non-native English (a disproportionate amount claim to be Chinese or Eastern European), and the other part up to wanting to keep a tight lid on their profitable secrets. The most "comprehensive" response I got, after asking "How did you get such a great deal on these iTunes gift cards?" was:
Hi, I bought it from my friend . hehe
its price is realy low .
if you like, you can buy from me and then selll it on ebay.
I saw they sell about $100 for $200 card on ebay
No shortage of "hehe" in the responses I received, that's for sure. Like the myths behind virtual gold farming, they add color to the tales, but that's where my trail went cold. Wherever there's riches, you can count on not just greed to be present, but bizarre human behavior.
Returning to eBay, I scoured around some more. I rummaged through the gift card auctions, and was hard-pressed to find any as popular or as below-expected-price as iTunes. I even found some big names that went substantially above their value, like this $530 winning bid on a $500 Amazon.com gift card. (What's the point?) But iTunes ones can be consistently, suspiciously found for much lower. Since the majority of these sales are digital codes, not actual cards (as one seller made sure to remind me he couldn't send the card), a physical object isn't necessary to use them. Which makes them harder to trace.
What's Apple's gospel word on this? None. Apple's Gift Card FAQ says nothing about the matter yet, but it's been happening for years. This has been bubbling beneath the surface and hasn't gotten broader attention. There's been articles about iTunes phishing, but that's not the same as the underground gift card/code phenomenon.
This is especially ambiguous because we can't rule out that there is a legit channel for these cards, or that they're so affordable for another, non-criminal reason which isn't understood by all parties involved. True, the factors I mentioned above make them look very shady. And even if you don't have a tight budget which strangles luxuries like music, the goal is always to buy low…so how low is too low? Branding someone as a crook just because they don't speak fluent English is unfair, considering that they may've genuinely gotten the codes from an associate and are genuinely unaware if it's unlawful. I'll understand if Apple gets in touch with me about my account, as they apparently have with some others, and in the meantime, I'll continue to use my store credit — and ethically, look for better ways to reward the artists directly. (Which is a discussion for another time.)
The moral of the story: from "it fell off the back of a truck" to gift codes in cyberspace, there can be more than meets the eye when it comes to an unbelievable deal.