Keeping the change
Knowing your rights, having a strategy can stop those decorative plastics from going to waste
Published: Saturday, December 29, 2007 at 3:32 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 28, 2007 at 9:00 p.m.
Christine Larkin has carried around the same gift card in her wallet for two years.
The card is wrapped in a ragged Post-it note on which she's written its remaining balance: $3.21.
Larkin, a Windsor resident, doubts it will ever get spent.
"I don't want to inconvenience the clerk and make them split my purchase to use that $3.21," she said. "It's probably been eaten away by fees, anyway."
Retailers bank on that attitude. Americans are expected to lose $8 billion this year in unspent gift cards, according to Consumer Reports. So on average, every American from infants to the elderly will donate $26 this year to retailers, malls and credit-card companies.
The reasons vary: Some gift cards get lost or stashed away forever in a dusty drawer, others are eaten away by fees or never get spent because the balance is so low.
To take back what they rightfully own, people need to develop strategies to make sure they spend the $100 billion expected to be placed on gift cards this year. And there are several resources to help, including a few state laws.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
A new California law that takes effect Tuesday allows customers to cash out cards when the balance reaches $10 or less. But the law doesn't apply to gift cards tied to multiple stores, such as mall gift cards, or credit-card gift cards.
Gift cards tied to a specific retailer never expire -- with one exception. If a gift card for a specific retailer has less than $5 and has not been used for 24 months, it can be docked a $1 per month fee.
California does not provide consumer protection to gift cards for multiple stores, such as the Simon Visa Giftcard used at the Santa Rosa Plaza, or for credit-card gift cards. People must read the terms and conditions for these cards to determine when fees start. Some even expire regardless of the balance.
That unspent $8 billion is a big market, and at least one startup company has taken notice. The Web site Leveragecard.com helps people organize their gift cards for free.
People can register gift cards from several hundred different retailers ranging from Best Buy to Gap.
Users see the balance of their gift cards on the Web site and even earn interest.
People receive 3.65 percent interest on cards purchased on the site or 1 percent interest for cards registered at the site but purchased elsewhere.
The hope is that people won't put a gift card in a junk drawer and forget about it, said Jennifer Mathe, co-founder of the Web site.
"We're hoping that $8 billion will get knocked down pretty fast," Mathe said. "Someone pays good money for a gift card for you, and then it goes unused. That's just not fair."
Mathe and a longtime friend, Mark Roberts, began working on the idea for the Web site in 2005. It launched this month.
The Irvine-based company is still adding features and additional retailers to the site.
The company is currently able to show balances from gift cards purchased at about half the retailers on its site.
The Web site also enables members to swap gift cards with one another at no cost. People put their card on the trading block, indicate what card and dollar amount they are looking to swap, and wait to see if someone is interested. If a match is made, each person is supposed to mail the card to the other party.
Currently, the Web site has no protection against swap fraud, but is working on rolling out a system, Mathe said.
The company plans to make money by selling gift cards and allowing retailers to put special offers in users' "Offers & Savings" bin on the Web site, Mathe said.
But the company doesn't e-mail special offers to its users or share any of their data, Mathe said.
As the number of gift cards given out during the holiday season grows, so too do people's strategies on how to manage them all.
"I keep them in my wallet," said Dan Calmeyer from Occidental.
"If it's not in my wallet, then Emily's in charge of it," he said, pointing to his girlfriend, Emily Buller.
She keeps them in a paper envelope near the mail bin.
"But if it's not in the envelope, it's gone," Buller said.
Consumer Reports provided several strategies in its annual report on gift cards:
Use the card fast
Use it to the last penny
Consider other options than bank gift cards such as mall-wide cards, which can have heavy fees and restrictions and are not governed by the same consumer-friendly state laws as gift cards issued by a single retailer.
To avoid donating any more money to the corporate coffers, Larkin took her three boys to the Santa Rosa Plaza on Friday so they could spend their holiday gift cards fast.
"If you don't use them in the first two weeks, forget it," Larkin said.
You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or nathan.halverson@press
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article