You could be watching a crime in progress. Anyone seeing me might think I'm just looking at the gift cards, but we're actually taking pictures of the numbers.

It's step one in the newest crime wave: gift card theft that's threatening to ruin your holidays.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, 7News”So this is happening, and this is getting worse.”

Jon Hurst, Retailers Association of Massachusetts”Absolutely, it's getting worse.”

Shoplifting used to be the retail crime of choice. Now, stealing from stores is much more high-tech. Crooks get a gift card number, call or check Web sites to confirm when it's sold and activated and then use it online.

Tami Kegley, victim”I was mad.”

Tami bought cards for a church volunteers. When she tried to use them, the balance was zero.

Tami Kegley, victim”I couldn't understand how it could happen.”

This sheriff got the answer straight from an informant in the local prison. A methamphetamine user, desperate for drug money, ratted out the numbers game scam she'd learned from fellow inmates. He tried it himself.

Sergeant Colin Fagan, Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Medford, Ore. “And I went to several Web sites and found that at the checkout, I could enter a gift card number without having to show the card, and it was very feasible.”

So if you're saying, why would you reveal all this? Retailers know the reason. It's so you can protect yourself.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, 7News”So bottom line the bad guys already know this?”Jon Hurst, Retailers Association of Massachusetts”I think they do.”

Experts say your best protection is to buy a card with a pin number you have to scratch-off to see. The card is unusable without those hidden numbers.

We did find some safe cards encased in packaging, and some glued to cardboard, but many others — like this and this and this — with no protection at all.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, 7News”Why don't retailers just put these cards out of reach?”Jon Hurst, Retailers Association of Massachusetts”Well that's a great question. It's a tough dilemma for the retailer, you want to have them available. You want to remind the consumer they are a nice option, but you also want them to be secure.”

But you can protect yourself here when gift card numbers are visible and therefore vulnerable. Just don't buy the ones on display.

Jon Hurst, Retailers Association of Massachusetts”Better to be safe than sorry. Just get a fresh card from behind the counter.”

It's a good idea to keep your receipts in case you need a proof of purchase and finally, never never buy a card from an online auction site. Experts warn they're most likely stolen or fraudulent.(Copyright (c) 2006 Sunbeam Television Corp. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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