Gift cards are enormously popular with consumers, as they’re an easy way to give another person a memorable night out at a restaurant or theater, or perhaps a shopping spree at a favorite store. It’s been a long time since I saw a paper gift certificate, that’s for sure, though I know some stores still issue them. Paper has largely been replaced by plastic due to convenience. Gift cards make it easy to use part of the balance at one time and the rest on another occasion. So, what are the downsides to gift cards?
I wanted to get your perspective on giving gift cards. I used to give these all the time until I got burned a few months ago! I bought a gift card for a popular store in our area, and I probably should have used it all at once, but I didn’t. Well, the store filed for bankruptcy and as part of their restructuring, they invalidated all of their gift cards that were out there. I am so disgusted about the money I lost and had no idea they could just declare my gift card void like that. It has turned me off from buying any future gift cards.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen you talk about gift cards in your column. Just wanted to share what happened to me recently. I went to buy a gift card at my son’s favorite restaurant for his birthday. When I got there, there was a note on the door that they’d ‘closed temporarily’ and would reopen soon. It made me wonder what would have happened if I bought the card for him and then they went out of business: I’d be out $50 with no recourse. I ended up giving him cash in an envelope with a note that it was for the restaurant he likes. I don’t like giving cash but at the same time, now nobody loses if this place doesn’t reopen.
Both of these readers have raised valid concerns about giving gift cards. We like to think that they’re “as good as cash,” but there are certainly circumstances in which those little plastic cards aren’t as good as dollar bills. Consumer Reports’ blog, Consumerist.com, warns about another danger of gift card giving, too – when you purchase gift cards, they’re often wrapped in a cardboard carrier or sleeve. Depending on the style of the cardboard sleeve, the gift card number may be visible before purchase.
According to Consumerist, before gift cards are sold, scammers visit stores and photograph or record gift card numbers. Then, they’ll wait for someone to buy them and activate them. (How do the scammers know when the cards have been purchased and activated? They’ll call the 800 number on the back of the card and check the balance on the card.) When the scammers know that a card they’re watching has an active balance, the scammer is free to use the card’s number to shop online or over the phone.
While the chances of this happening are slim, I still choose gift cards from the back of the rack if I’m buying something that doesn’t have its card number obscured at the time of purchase. You might think I’d simply not buy gift cards, but indeed, they’re convenient to give as gifts for many reasons. I also find myself lured in by “moneymaker” gift card deals – where stores offer gift cards at less than face value. If I can buy a $50 gift card for $40, I’m maximizing my gift to someone else at a lower out-of-pocket cost.
Smart Living Tip: Gift cards are such a common method of gift giving in our society that they’re not going away anytime soon. Use caution when purchasing gift cards and try to protect yourself from fraud as much as possible. It’s also a good idea to use up gift card balances in a timely manner, too, as some gift cards penalize the user by deducting a monthly maintenance fee from the card after a certain time period.