By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Walmart Inc <WMT.N>, Target Corp <TGT.N> and Best Buy Co <BBY.N> have made changes to their gift card programs to reduce the risk of fraud as consumers enter the holiday shopping season.
Barbara Underwood and Josh Shapiro, the attorneys general of New York and Pennsylvania, announced the changes on Tuesday, as part of a more than year-long initiative to thwart scam artists.
The changes include reducing purchase limits on store-branded gift cards in a single transaction, limiting how much can be loaded onto the cards, and prohibiting the redemption of store-branded gift cards for other gift cards.
Walmart, Target and Best Buy also bolstered training to help employees spot scams and warn potential victims.
"By working collaboratively with these retailers, we've created a way for businesses to take proactive steps to prevent scams," Underwood said in a statement.
The National Retail Federation said gift cards are the most popular item on consumers' wish lists for the 12th straight year, requested by 60 percent of 7,313 people surveyed.
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission said 26 percent of victims reporting scams between January and September said they paid with gift cards, up from just 7 percent in 2015.
Losses through September from gift and 'reload' cards totalled $53 million, up from $40 million for all of 2017, with a median loss of about $500 per incident. (http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/data-spotlight/2018/10/scammers-increasingly-demand-payment-gift-card)
Regulators said scammers often use retail gift cards to buy third-party cards such as iTunes, Steam and Google Play that can be resold on the black market, and impersonate other people to swindle unwitting victims.
Common impersonations include grandchildren claiming they got into trouble, such as arrests or accidents, and needed money for bail or lawyers; Internal Revenue Service agents claiming, often angrily, that taxes were owed; and tech support employees seeking payments to fix alleged viruses on victims' computers.
Underwood and Shapiro said retail gift cards cannot be used for such expenses, and that the IRS does not cold-call people.
They also said consumers should not volunteer gift card numbers to people they don't know, and should contact state consumer officials or law enforcement if they believe they were targeted.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas)