Friday, May 21, 2010

Time For A Rant

Okay, enough reverie. Anyone out there up for a little ranting? I see a hand do? No problem; one vote is sufficient--even an imaginary one.

Today's topic, boys and girls, will be what NOT to get someone for a gift when your best idea is a gift certificate of some type. I'm not saying gift certs--or gift cards--are bad. They are just fine, unless you get hoodwinked into thinking that a Visa (or probably any credit card company name) gift card is a great idea. It's not; trust me.

On the surface of things, a $50 Visa gift card looks like a no-brainer, gift-wise. Pretty much a fifty-dollar bill, only plastic, right? No, in fact that's not at all what it is. It's a plastic pain in the ass, with hidden stipulations which are little extra pains in the ass. My sweetie works in a bank, and she told me that when somebody walks in with one, they all just cringe. Last week I got my education, first-hand.

The $50 Visa gift card sat around for a couple months after Christmas, until we finally decided to use it at a restaurant. Our bill came to a little over $30, and I left a cash tip. The math involved, to come up with the balance, was simple enough and we put the card away for another time.

A couple months later, which was last week, we decided to take advantage of one of the nearby restaurant deals, where you get two meals for $14.95. With a couple iced-teas and tax, I figured I was going to be fine with nearly $20 left on the card and some cash for a tip. I was wrong.

As we finished eating, I took the check and did quick math in my head. The balance on the card and six bucks cash would pay the bill, and still leave an appropriate 20% tip for the good service. Wrong again. The server had tried to put a little more than the balance on the card, and it declined. When he came back to the table and told us the problem, I explained that I had failed to tell him the balance on the card, and he went back and tried again.

This next time, the manager came back to try to help clear things up. After a quick explanation, he was off to make the transaction all come out right. Well, he tried anyway. If you are starting to suspect that our embarrassment index was up, at this point, you are right. All the time I'm thinking, "It shouldn't be this difficult."

When the manager came back again, he offered a little experience of his own, regarding Visa gift cards. He told us he had learned that some card companies actually hold 20% more than the amount swiped, possibly to cover a belated tip or something. At this point, we just told the manager to charge whatever would work and we'd cover the rest in cash, meanwhile letting the server keep the cash I'd given him originally. (Adding to the embarrassment, the server actually came back holding the cash saying, "Do you need this back?") I just wanted this transaction to be over.

Finally, the manager came back again. He told us that he had phoned the company, found out the balance (which was the one I had known all along) but that it wouldn't ring for that amount. The manager then subtracted 20% from the balance that the card company gave him, ran that amount, and finally got it to go through. So, one-half hour after finishing our dinner, and a little red-faced, we finally got out of the restaurant having paid an almost 30% tip and getting a real education about Visa gift cards.

When I got home, I just had to know what the fine print was on the back of the card. I promise you, I had to put on my reading glasses and take out a magnifying glass to be able to read the print. It confirmed what my sweetie had told me about no cash value (isn't that interesting), but said nothing about holding back any percentage of the charged amount. When I went to the website, listed on the card, it showed one figure for that day: 20% more than the amount on the slip I had been given by the manager. His take on this sneaky little procedure was accurate. Also, per the extremely fine print, there is a $2.50 per month fee for not using the card, starting in the seventh month after activation. It almost seems like they want to take as much as they can from you, even after charging a fee for the gift card in the first place, doesn't it? The word scumbag comes to mind.

So, does this sound like fun to you? I didn't think so. Had we been given a card for that very restaurant, everything would probably have worked out perfectly, but we were still on a learning curve at that time. The person who gave us the card, of course, had no idea what a fiasco it could be, either. I've had gift cards from everywhere I can think of, and never had anything remotely like this happen...ever. Forewarned is forearmed. Just trying to help.

My suggestion, should you ever get this type of gift card, would be to not use it at a restaurant or anywhere a tip might be assumed to be a possibility. I can't say for sure, but I don't think they'll hold 20% back for a fuel purchase, for instance. That may be the ticket right there. Let's say you get a $50 Visa gift card. You go to the gas station, tell them put $25 on pump number whatever (at least a 1/4 tank, right?) and wait a week or so and do the same thing one more time. The card gets run for 1/2 of the value (remember: no cash value), and then, even if they hold back 20%, a week later you should be good to go for one more gas station visit. This way, you can get every cent out of the card, and avoid the possibility of having to wash dishes at your favorite restaurant.

You can probably be a little creative, but I wouldn't veer too far from my little scenario. Oh yeah, and be sure to make it all happen in the first seven months after you activate the card. Clear as mud? Yeah, that's what they're counting on, I imagine.