TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A disabled veteran with a traumatic brain injury was on his laptop when the screen froze with an alarming message to call a phone number for help.

The bay area resident, who asked to keep his name private to avoid retaliation said he called and talked to someone who was “extremely convincing.”

“I fell for it,” he said.

It is a growing problem across the country, involving millions of dollars and thousands of victims. A report by the Federal Trade Commission indicated gift card schemes cost 40,000 people nearly $148 million during the first 9 months of last year.

For the local victim, Lowes gift cards were at the top of the list for the suspects who demanded $8,000 worth to clear up a credit card issue and stop a scheme that would supposedly end with child pornography possession charges if he did not pay.

“I felt like I was being held hostage by them. They kept me on the phone,” he said. “They said I had a time limit.”

He said his brain injury suffered while serving in the Cold War “absolutely” had an impact on the panic he felt.

By the time he realized he had been conned, it was too late. Lowes officials told the victim and his wife the cards were cashed by using just the security codes on the back at stores in Texas and New Jersey.

“I had no idea you could use a gift card without the card,” his wife said. “That needs to change.”

Receipts showed the scheme cost him $7,500, including $5,000 in Lowes cards and another $2,000 from Target.

Target spokesperson Brian Harper-Tibaldo said the retailer is “aware of the prevalence of gift card schemes and take them very seriously.”

“We have signs in our stores and share general safety tips with our team members through training, so they can stay alert and help guests as best as they can,” Harper-Tibaldo said. “This year, we’ve made additional efforts to help prevent gift card schemes, including communication to all of our stores, team member training and new system restrictions.”

The victim said someone from Target has reached out to him since 8 on Your Side got involved.

Lowes spokesperson Larry Costello said the company’s “fraud team and customer care team have looked into the matter and we appreciate the opportunity to continue to work with [the victim.]”

“We take gift card fraud seriously and maintain practices designed to help reduce fraud, including in-store signage, online warnings and standard processes for associates,” Costello said. “We encourage associates to keep an eye out for distressed customers buying gift cards and intervene, as needed.”

The local victim’s wife has little doubt her husband appeared stressed, but she said no one stopped him from buying the gift cards. He said Target had a $500 limit but there was no limit at Lowes, allowing him to buy two $2,000 cards and one $1,000 card.

“We really hope [Lowes] changes that policy,” his wife said. “There should be a limit.”

The victim hopes what happened to him will make others aware and help them avoid getting victimized.

“It sounded legitimate. I asked them for certain things and they had an answer for everything that I asked,” he said. “They knew the main credit card I used. They actually transferred me from one person to someone at [that credit card company.] I went along with them.”

His decision to report the crime is rare, according to the FTC. In its 2021 report, it indicated there was $148 million in gift card fraud last year, the agency estimated less than 5% of the victims reported the crime.

For Lowe’s tips to avoid gift card fraud, click here. For Target’s tips to avoid gift card fraud, click here.