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Archive for Sunday, November 1, 2009

When giving gift cards this season, understand various pitfalls

November 1, 2009

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— You buy your sister a $100 general purpose gift card. It’s for her birthday, but it might be the bank that has reason to celebrate.

Despite your good intentions, such gift cards often come with a tangle of fine print and fees that can ensnare unsuspecting recipients. Your sister might not realize that a $3 monthly inactivity fee kicks in after a year. Or it could annoy her that it costs $12 to replace a lost card.

While the new credit card law passed this year includes some regulations for gift cards, it doesn’t eliminate many of the fees they often come with.

So before you start loading up on gift cards for the holidays, know the pitfalls.

The basics

There are two types of gift cards: store cards and general purpose bank cards. The latter are Visa, MasterCard or American Express branded cards that you can use wherever those credit cards are accepted. These are the cards that often come with a mess of fees and terms.

Unlike with gift cards to specific stores, there are usually fees to buy general purpose gift cards. Chase and Wells Fargo cards cost $3.50 a piece. American Express cards cost between $2.95 and $6.95, depending on the value of the card.

The cards can’t be reloaded, and don’t come with the same protections as credit or debit cards. So you can’t dispute a purchase or issue a “stop payment.”

Running meter

Once a general purpose bank card is purchased, the clock on the expiration date starts ticking.

At Wells Fargo, gift cards typically expire four years after purchased. You can request a check for the remaining balance if you don’t use up the card before then, but that will cost you $15. So if the balance on your card is less than that, you’re out of luck.

The card’s value could disappear even before the expiration date as a result of dormancy fees. Chase and Wells Fargo both start deducting $2.50 a month from cards after a year. So if left unused, a monthly fee could eventually deplete a card’s value. Some cards start charging monthly fees as early as six months after purchase, according to the Consumer Federation of America, which is based in Washington, D.C.

It should be noted that American Express recently did away with the $2 dormancy fee on its gift cards. The cards also don’t have expiration dates, and replacements for lost or stolen cards are free. The drawback is that American Express cards aren’t as widely accepted as Visa and MasterCard.

More fees

Even apart from upfront and inactivity fees, the recipient can encounter several other surprising service charges.

If a card is lost or stolen, Chase charges $12 for a replacement card while Wells Fargo charges $7.50. There could also be fees of 3 percent or so on foreign transactions, as with many credit card purchases. Other banks charge to look up the balance on a card.

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