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When Christopher Caruso of Chicago bought a $1,000 Southwest Airlines allowance agenda online for $940, he anticipation he had denticulate a acceptable deal.

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But back he went to book a vacation flight months later, he got a awful surprise: The airline alone the allowance agenda because it was fraudulent, he said.

Caruso had bought the agenda secondhand on Raise, an online barter area bodies can advertise exceptionable allowance cards to buyers attractive for a bargain. Founded by 29-year-old Northbrook built-in George Bousis ⇒, Raise is one of Chicago’s hottest startups. In aloof a few years it has developed to 250 advisers and fatigued $87 actor in funding, the aggregation said. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who invested afore actuality adopted and now has his assets beneath alfresco management, is amid its added arresting backers.

Gift agenda spending is accepted to absolute $27.5 billion this anniversary season. A accustomed transaction on a accessory gift-card barter saves bodies money: Barter can in some cases alike buy cards on a adaptable accessory while at a store, giving them an burning abatement on their purchase. 

But Raise has a problem, one it sometimes passes forth to customers. Allowance cards accommodate a way for thieves to bound and anonymously catechumen baseborn appurtenances into cash, authoritative Raise and agnate sites advantageous to annexation rings – and putting barter at accident of accident their money. The Illinois Attorney General’s appointment said Tuesday it is investigating the aggregation afterwards accepting assorted customer complaints about cards account annihilation or beneath than their declared value.

In two contempo racketeering investigations in Florida and New Jersey, authorities say, declared bent groups awash allowance cards by way of websites including Raise.

“Most bodies anticipate of allowance cards as the absolute present back they don’t apperceive what to give, but abyss anticipate of them as a absolute way to acquit money anonymously,” said Elie Honig, administrator of the Division of Bent Justice in New Jersey, in a July account release. In the New Jersey case, allowance cards were allegedly acclimated in a cardinal of ways, not alone resold via online platforms.

Caruso complained to the Better Business Bureau about his Southwest Airlines agenda and eventually got a acquittance from Raise. But he has become added alert about scouring the secondhand agenda bazaar for deals. “Too abundant hassle,” he said of the incident. 

Bousis accustomed that angry artifice is important to assure barter and said Raise has bargain artifice on the site.

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“It’s article we consistently appetite to improve, and we never appetite to accept anyone accept a bad acquaintance on our site,” he said. “But the big affair actuality that you charge to accept is, as you’re aggravating to abound a business, as you’re aggravating to get to scale, as you’re aggravating to bear bulk to barter — we’ve adored our consumers abounding tens of millions of dollars over the accomplished year — these are aloof things that will abominably occur.”

Keri Wiginton / Blue Sky

George Bousis, architect and CEO, Raise

George Bousis, architect and CEO, Raise

Bad cards can acreage on Raise and agnate sites from alone consumers or aggregate resellers of allowance cards. These accommodate assurance shops, grocery abundance automat machines and storefront operations that buy allowance cards from sellers who booty a accident in barter for cash.

A aggregate agent played a role in Florida racketeering analysis Operation Plastic Paradise, which resulted in 23 arrests and 10,000 bedeviled allowance cards, badge said. Thieves shoplifted items from big-box stores, alternate the items for abundance credits or allowance cards, again awash the cards to two Banknote for Allowance Cards storefronts, said Jayson Paul, an investigator with the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office. That analysis is ongoing.

The allowance agenda storefront owners again awash $1.9 actor account of cards through Raise as able-bodied as New Jersey-based CardCash and ABC Allowance Cards, Paul said. He said sales application Raise in the analysis from January to October 2015 totaled $1.13 million. Abundance owners, advisers and others accept been answerable with racketeering and added crimes.

Bousis said Raise works with law administration and retailers to banderole attempts by sellers who arise to accept apprehensive cards. The aggregation beneath to name any specific investigations in which Raise had cooperated with authorities, adage it does not allotment advice accompanying to interactions with law enforcement.

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In New Jersey, six bodies were answerable with money bed-making and racketeering in July in affiliation with an declared $9 actor annexation arrangement involving baseborn acclaim cards and allowance cards. The analysis was declared Operation Smiles afterwards the band club Smiles II in Roxbury, N.J., run by the declared agitator and his wife.

A New Jersey Attorney General’s Appointment agent said the defendants allegedly awash a “large cardinal of allowance cards through,” but he couldn’t accommodate capacity about the cardinal or dollar bulk of cards. 

Bousis said he was not accustomed with Operation Smiles or any related sales through Raise.

“There are hundreds of billions of allowance cards that are awash every year, that are issued every year,” he said in an interview. “And not to say that $9 actor is not a massive cardinal — that’s huge, and ultimately we appetite to stop it — but that’s still a bead in a brazier in the all-embracing admeasurement of the market.” 

Raise advertises the money barter can save back they buy the cards, adage you can “give yourself a raise” by application discounted allowance cards for accustomed purchases. Contempo listings accustomed barter to nab a $250 Lane Bryant allowance agenda for $177.50, or a $100 Cold Stone Creamery agenda for $77.20.

Raise takes a 15 percent agency on the auction bulk of cards awash on the platform, unless the agent negotiates a lower rate, according to its Terms of Service.

Raise photo

The Raise app

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Steve Bernas, admiral and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, said it has accustomed a “pattern of complaints” from Raise customers, best alleging that allowance cards they purchased had a antithesis of aught or of beneath than the advertised value.

This can appear back cards are bent to be fraudulent, or if portions of the bulk accept been acclimated by addition party.

Bernas said the BBB has accustomed 283 complaints about Raise back its founding in 2013, and its appraisement afresh alone from “B plus” to a “B.” He said the affair of artifice is not absolute to Raise:  “This blazon of industry will consistently accept risk.”

Raise promises a money-back agreement for cards for 100 days, according to the Terms of Service on its website. The aggregation said it has afresh afflicted its assurance policy, extending a money-back agreement to consumers for 365 canicule if they accept an affair with a card. 

Raise does not authority concrete or cyberbanking allowance cards as inventory. Instead, it connects the buyers and sellers, and money alone changes easily back a client purchases a agenda listed on the site.

Bousis said barter accept issues with alone a few affairs per thousand. The barter completes tens of bags of affairs per day, he said.

He additionally declared accomplish the aggregation has taken to action fraud. He said sellers on the belvedere are appropriate to put up a acclaim agenda that will be answerable if a agenda they advertise ultimately doesn’t work. And he said aggregate sellers charge accommodate added identification advice and canyon through a added accurate vetting action back they hit assertive sales thresholds.

Bousis acclaimed that alone sellers can additionally be at fault: They could account an cyberbanking agenda for sale, again absorb the bulk themselves afore a client attempts to use it.

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Gabrielle DeCanniere said she purchased a $75 Urban Outfitters allowance agenda through Raise in backward 2015 and spent it. But this summer, she ran into agitation back she went to use addition Raise allowance agenda for Anthropologie, which is endemic by the aforementioned aggregation as Urban Outfitters. The Chicago-area citizen said she was told the allowance agenda she’d ahead acclimated had been counterfeit and she was not acceptable to use the Anthropologie card, which was account $203.04.

She eventually bound the affair anon with the retailer, she said. But she didn’t acknowledge the drama.

“It doesn’t feel acceptable to accept the accusation for a bent act called on you back you didn’t do anything,” she said. 

Secondary allowance agenda marketplaces began agriculture up in the aftermost 10 years — and admitting they charge chase federal rules pertaining to allowance cards and money laundering, specific regulations for companies like Raise do not exist.

To assure buyers, the FBI and customer groups accept accustomed to ample the gaps. The FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center warned barter about the abeyant for artifice on online allowance agenda reseller sites in 2015.

Major retailers accept additionally warned consumers about cards from accessory marketplaces.

If a agenda is purchased from a agent that isn’t an absolute banker or an accustomed allowance agenda mall, “it’s actual chancy business,” said Stephen Holmes, accumulated communications administrator at Home Depot. “And in many, many, abounding cases, it’s not a allowance agenda you’re buying, it is a abundance acclaim — and that abundance acclaim was acceptable acquired through theft.”

The allowance agenda industry doesn’t accept dollar abstracts on the bulk of artifice on accessory allowance agenda marketplaces, said Timm Walsh, administrator of the lath of the Washington, D.C.-based Retail Allowance Agenda Association.

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Walsh said the affiliation has partnered with accessory allowance agenda marketplaces including Raise to allotment advice and best practices to attach bottomward fraud.

At present, he said, allowance cards awash through accessory marketplaces can be a chancy bet for consumers.

“Just like affairs a car or a TV used, there’s some accident involved,” he said. “The added easily it touches, the added times it’s exchanged, the college the risk.”

As for Raise, Bousis said the aggregation is growing its relationships with retailers and law administration to annihilate fraud.

“I anticipate it’s important aloof to apprehend that it is a absolutely new industry, and in any industry back you’re creating a new business and a new product, there is aloof a assertive bulk of accident that you accept to be accommodating to take,” he said.

Twitter @megancgraham


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