Some gift cards are more about taking


Published: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 9:29 p.m.
'Twas the day after Christmas, and 'twixt glitter and glint,' were gift cards that should blare out: "Beware the fine print!"
OK, so now you know why I chose journalism over poetry. But do you know about all the crafty terms and money-munching fees attached to some of the high-tech gift cards we all seem to be exchanging this holiday season?
A National Retail Federation survey said three out of four consumers planned to purchase at least one gift card this year, and predicted gift-card sales of $18.5 billion, up 7 percent over 2004 - itself a banner year.
I've done my part, after years of sniffing at the cards as the opposite of a "thoughtful" gift. With nieces and nephews in college and pressed for cash, the cards seem like a useful compromise.
They may be, but only if you buy and use them carefully, according to the third annual survey by the Division of Consumer Affairs in Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington.
The good news: After years of griping by consumers and heckling by folks like me, many retailers' gift cards have become pretty benign: You can give one and trust that your gift will be available for the recipient's use, not fattening the issuer's bottom line.
But other cards still merit a "Mission: Impossible-style warning: This card will self-destruct if you don't spend the money right away."
Think I'm exaggerating? Check out the iCARD Visa Gift Card, which imposes a $25 "maintenance fee" six months after purchase, on a card available for amounts of $50 to $250. Maybe it should be renamed the iPick-Your-Pocket-Card.
The iCARD is available online or by phone, according to the Web site of iCARD Systems, the Missouri company that markets it not only for personal gifts, but also for corporate incentives, promotions and rebates.
It boasts some of the features that make these cards easy to pitch. It's embossed with the recipient's name. It's accepted anywhere a Visa debit card is. It even works in cash machines.
But those advantages come at a price. Online, a single iCARD costs $7.95. By phone, the fee is based on the card's value, up to $12.20 for a $250 card. And yes, you can use iCARD at an ATM - for $2.50, plus the usual cash machine surcharge.
Scariest of all is what happens if you put the card in your wallet and forget about it till summer vacation.
After six months, that $25 maintenance fee is deducted. Then the card expires - no more purchases, no more withdrawals. Unlike some cards, it can't be reloaded. Basically, it's personalized plastic landfill fodder.
Oh, you can still get your money, or at least maybe some of it, through a written request for a refund. Within a year of purchase, you'll pay an extra $25 for a check. Wait two years and you'll pay $75. If there's anything left.
You don't have to be scared away from all gift cards. Just wary. Some highlights of the report, available at www.montgomery countymd.gov/consumer: Top marks go to 18 of the 30 retailers and restaurants whose cards were surveyed, because they carry no fees or expiration dates, and can be replaced if lost or stolen. They are: Best Buy, Borders Books, Circuit City, Costco, Gap, Home Depot, JC Penney, Lowe's, McDonald's, Nordstrom, Old Navy, PetSmart, Sam's Club, Sears, Sports Authority, Starbucks, Target and Wal-Mart. (Best Buy and Home Depot get an asterisk for reserving the right to change terms.) Seven cards impose dormancy fees after periods of nonuse. Two set expiration dates - void in states such as Pennsylvania that prohibit them. Six cards got black marks for setting such terms, but failing to disclose them before purchase in stores or online: Blockbuster, KB Toys, Kmart, Macy's, Red Lobster and Toys R Us.
The eight bank cards surveyed were full of costly fees - probably no coincidence, given how fee-happy most banks have become. The Good2Go MasterCard deducts $4.95 per month from Day 1. Let's call that Good2Avoid.
Frankly, they all are. Let the bankers get their own Christmas gifts.

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