Several Phoenix-area pool and spa retailers were the victims of a gift-card scam and have changed certain policies in response.

Stores began noticing the problem when they started receiving chargebacks from credit card companies for purchases of $400 to $500 made with gift cards.

It is believed that the scam is the brainchild of two men. The team visited stores to purchase an automatic cleaner that had a rebate offer in effect, explaining that they were buying it for an elderly female relative. When it came time to pay, they would present a Visa gift card. In at least some cases, when the sales associate would try to swipe the card, the transaction wouldn’t go through, so the store employee would input the numbers by hand, after which they received approval.

Several weeks later, the stores received notifications stating that the purchases were made fraudulently and the charges were reversed. One financial institution cited a stolen credit card.

Local police are currently investigating the scam. It is believed that the criminals somehow imprinted stolen credit-card numbers onto gift cards.

The retailers also notified the manufacturers of the cleaners and provided serial numbers for the equipment, so they would know when the thieves were trying to register the equipment and collect the rebate money.

Because the purchases were made with gift cards, the retailers had no recourse and had to accept the losses. “It’s a double whammy — they reversed the charges and we were out the product,” said David Hagen, vice president of operations at Cactus Valley Pool Supply in Gilbert, Ariz.

Gift cards display no name for a giver or recipient, which makes it more difficult to protect against fraud. To prevent future occurrences, a number of retailers have changed their policies for dealing with gift cards, with some setting dollar limits. Diane Rhodes no longer accepts gift cards over $50. “I’m leery to take any,” said the owner of Pool Shop in Phoenix.

Scottsdale-based A&M Corson’s AquaValue will accept gift cards of up to $100. “Most gift cards aren’t for more than $100,” said company coordinator Cerah Gray. Additionally, the company no longer allows its staff to manually input the numbers from the gift card — if it doesn’t register on a swipe, it isn’t accepted.

Some retailers with multiple branches were victimized at more than one location. A&M, for instance, was hit three times and an attempted fourth — each at different stores. “By [the fourth] we had already figured it out,” Gray said. “I was alone in the store at the time, so I really wanted to avoid any type of confrontation. I told him, ‘I’m sorry, but corporate passed down a policy that we are not allowed to type in the numbers if the card doesn’t swipe.’

“He made several excuses, like if the card doesn’t work, he doesn’t know how he’s going to feed his kids tonight, and he backed all the way out the door and left. He was still talking when he left out the door. He was very apologetic.”