Gift card might be the gift that doesn't keep on giving

Consuming Interests

December 11, 2005|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Contrary to popular belief, Sandy Lerner says, gift cards are not on everyone's holiday wish list.

In fact, the 50-year-old Caroline County antiques dealer wants to tell everyone she knows - and anyone else who would care to listen - to take a stand and ban the diabolical plastic this year.

"Do not buy gift cards," Lerner warns. "They charge you fees for not using the card in time. They charge you fees if you call to check your balance more than once a month. They charge you fees just to buy the card. It's absurd. I will not buy gift cards again. My family will not buy gift cards again."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Dec. 11 in the Modern Life section misstated the company responsible for charging monthly fees on The Mall in Columbia's gift cards. MidAmerica Gift Certificate Co., a Colorado subsidiary of BB&T Corp., is responsible for charging cardholders' monthly fees.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Ah, Gift Card Fury strikes again. Even as retail studies show they grow in popularity every year, gift cards continue to outrage many consumers who still aren't aware of the various terms and conditions attached that can whittle away your balance down to zero. Increasing anger over gift card fees has moved many state governments to ban such practices.

Lerner learned her lesson the hard way.

Lerner received a $40 Discover gift card to The Mall in Columbia from her sister last Christmas. While the mall was a convenient destination when Lerner lived in Elkridge, it became an hour-plus drive each way when she moved the Eastern Shore. So it took a while to get around to spending the $40 card.

"I mostly just forgot I had the card in my wallet," Lerner says. "And then in August, I used it to buy a knit top at Hecht's in Columbia mall for $6.09. I still have the receipt. I thought I still had $33.91 left."

Little did Lerner know that Discover was already charging her fees for maintaining the account.

Though the front of the card says it's good until June 2007, more important is what's written on the back. Lerner concedes that she failed to read the terms and conditions, which say that, after the first six months from when it was issued, $2.50 will be deducted from the balance every month it is not used.

While she thought she still had $33.91, she actually had only $23.91 left when she went to use the card again last month.

"I had no idea," Lerner says. "I didn't think there was such a thing. Most people don't read the back of the card. I think it's very deceiving to customers. Why is that date even on the front if there won't be any money left by June 2007?"

Lerner complained to mall management, but got nowhere. The mall, run by General Growth Properties Inc. in Chicago, told her to take the issue up with the credit card company. Discover sent her back to the mall.

In the end, all Lerner got was more angry.

Asa Williams, a mall spokeswoman, says their hands are tied. "What we do at each point of purchase is clearly explain the terms and conditions to the buyer," she said. "It's also on the packaging that the card is in when purchased. I'm not sure if the person who gave [the card] to her explained the terms to her." Obviously not.

Discover spokesman Mai-Lee Ua says there isn't much the credit card company can do either, because the card is issued by MidAmerica Gift Certificate Co., a Colorado subsidiary of BB&T Corp. (based in Winston-Salem, N.C.), which set the rules on fees and charges. "She would have to take it up with them," Ua says.

Efforts to reach someone at MidAmerica were unsuccessful. All Lerner knows is that she's out $10 that was given to her.

"I will shop elsewhere," she vows.

"I certainly hate to hear when one of our shoppers is upset," says David Keating, a General Growth spokesman. "I do know that our shoppers are quite happy with the gift cards. That's why we rolled them out at all of our malls. They have no worries about wrapping or thinking about the perfect gift to buy. I hope [Lerner] doesn't stop shopping at the Mall in Columbia. Customer service is very important to General Growth."

Lerner says she can attest to that, "They were all very nice about telling me there was nothing they can do."

So the big lesson in all this is to be wary when buying gift cards. Read all the fine print about fees. Be informed about state laws governing gift cards. In Maryland, a new law kicks in after July 2006 preventing retailers from imposing fees on a card for four years after purchase.

"If you have $100 now, you should have $100 later," says state Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat who helped sponsor the gift card legislation. "We did give companies the right to charge fees after four years."

Maryland consumers should be aware, however, that the law does not apply to bank cards issued by the credit card companies or mall cards, which can be used at various retail and service stores.

In other words, Lerner would still be out of luck.

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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