Now, My Gift Cards Are Making Me Nervous

November 15, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

I'm afraid to use the gift cards in my wallet.

I fear they'll land me on the witness stand in Courtroom 234, explaining how I happened to buy something, no doubt an embarrassing box of double creme Twinkies or Norah Jones CD, with a gift card from Sheila Dixon.

Just to be clear, the mayor of Baltimore has never handed me a gift card. But given that one of the revelations during her trial last week is that Dixon and some who received cards from her are apparent regifters, I think we have our own version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon going on right here.

In the same way that the frequently cast actor supposedly can be linked to every other one through six or fewer movie roles, I'm starting to think every gift card in town may be a mere six degrees separated from the mayor.

That at least is the impression from the courtroom, where last week Dixon began facing charges that she stole gift cards that were donated to her for distribution to the poor. To hear her lawyers tell it, Dixon simply used what she thought were personal gifts. Which version the jury will go with is unknown, but one week into the trial this much is clear: Gift cards somehow have become the official currency of City Hall.

For one thing, veritable stacks of them have passed through her hands and those of city staff. Lawyers or witnesses provided a picture of a City Hall awash in gift cards, some bought, some donated, some making their way to Dixon through her driver or in an unmarked envelope left at her office. Gift cards were given to city staff at office parties. Gift cards were given to residents who sought assistance for what otherwise would be a sparse Thanksgiving table. And gift cards were a key part of the rather haphazardly run "Holly Trolley" Christmas giveaway in which the only employee who tracked the source and use of the cards was convicted of stealing a few of them.

It's funny, if envelopes of cash were circulating in and out of City Hall, it would be immediately obvious that some kind of funny business could be going on. Somehow, the fact that it wasn't grubby bills but gift cards gave these transactions a veneer of something like legitimacy that in some cases was entirely deserved, such as an assistance program that made grocery and toy store cards available to needy families during the holidays.

But of course, as the trial has revealed, some of these gift cards were used on less-than-charitable causes, spent by Dixon herself or her family, staff and friends - or their friends, as the cards are handy gifts you could keep on giving. Which would be fine if the defense is right, that these were her gift cards to do with as she chose, less fine if the intent was for them to go to the poor. (And not just the poor who happened to work for Dixon, who testified rather sympathetically about personal travails that the gift cards they received didn't necessarily fix even as they provided a little holiday cheer.)

As convenient as these cards are, whether you're a developer seeking to curry favor with a certain city official, or a boss giving your staff a little something, or a shopper in need of a last-minute gift, I'm looking at them differently these days. Actually, it's all those cards bearing a magnetic data strip, those digital detectives that track what we've bought and how we've paid for it.

As the trial revealed last week, it wasn't gift cards alone that landed Dixon in hot water, it was also one of those rewards cards from retailers that offer bonus points or discounts in exchange for their ability to track your purchases. Gift cards used alone are largely untraceable, after all.But as State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh noted, the case began "unraveling" for Dixon when investigators tracking the donated gift cards found that some of the Best Buy ones were spent by someone also using the retailer's "Reward Zone" cards to rack up bonus points on the haul. The dots connected to Dixon, who previously had been documented buying healthful items like milk and apples with a grocery gift card, but who at one of her Best Buy visits threw in a box of Hot Tamales candy.

And similarly, a Giant gift card given to Dixon was traced to her boyfriend, and Housing Department employee, Edward Anthony when he used it in conjunction with a Giant bonus card.

With a key ring full of such cards myself, my own shopping foibles have no doubt been duly recorded and stored wherever all that raw data goes, ready for mining should some investigating body ever develop an interest in me. And even if that never happens, it's still a little creepy that this personal information is out there, somewhere, just waiting to come back and haunt me in some as yet unforeseeable way.

It always seems a little intrusive as it is when you buy some groceries, swipe your rewards card and have the cash register spit out a coupon for something that it discerns you need.

What algorithm has determined that I should pick up some Lean Cuisines next time? And just what is being implied by that coupon for Listerine breath strips?

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