Nine tricks for buying discounted gift cards safely

Buying discounted gift cards can be an easy way to spend a bit less. There are a number of websites that sell discounted gift cards, both physical and electronic. Depending on the retailer, the savings can be a few percent to 25% off, or more.

Though buying discounted gift cards is straightforward, I do concede that it’s not completely without risk, for a few reasons:

  • Someone else has the gift card’s information, and could potentially spend the balance down even after they’ve sold the card to the broker website, or directly to you.
  • Physical cards need to be mailed to you, and they’re active while they’re in transit.  Even though there are hefty fines for tampering with the mail, it’s a potential headache to track down the thief or to get restitution.
  • The card could have been stolen somehow, or could have been purchased with a stolen credit card.  And you’re the not-so-happy new owner.

Are discounted gift cards a lost cause?

Buy discounted gift cards safelyDespite these risks, I’m still of the opinion that, done correctly, buying discounted gift cards is low-risk, or at least no different than buying anything else second-hand.

I search with Google for instances of people buying stolen gift cards (unwittingly) and subsequently getting into trouble.  People have gotten into trouble for using stolen gift cards, but in all cases I found they knew that they were stolen (and may have even stolen them themselves).  Though the terms and conditions of most of the websites selling discounted gift cards expressly limit their liability in such cases, there appears to be little cause for worry.

In the case of the bigger discount gift card brokers, they guarantee the physical cards they sell to you for at least a month and a half, often longer.  Here’s a breakdown of the length of the money-back guarantees for a number of the big players:

 

Discount Gift Card Site Money-back guarantee*
JunkCard.com Life of the card
GiftCardZen.com 1 year
CardPool.com 100 days
GiftCards.com 100 days
GiftCardBin.com 100 days
Raise.com 60 days
ABCGiftCards.com 45 days
GiftCardSpread.com 45 days
CardFlip.com 45 days
*Physical cards only. As of 27 Feb 2015

Additionally, from anecdotal accounts I sense they actually follow through on these guarantees, and without hassle.  (I haven’t had issues with cards yet with any of the sites listed above.)

Here are a number of precautions that you can take to greatly reduce the risk of having a bad experience:

  1. Buy from established sites with good track records.  Reputation is everything with gift card marketplaces.  Lots of cards and lots of traffic over lots of time means lots of business, because people generally trust them already.
  2. Pay attention to your orders.  After you purchase a card, you should follow the messages from the site as to when the cards are expected to arrive.  The sites I’ve bought from send me an email when they’ve shipped the cards.  We make sure to watch our mail for the cards.
  3. Verify the balances on the cards ASAP.  The more quickly you report any problems with the card to the website, the more helpful they’ll be.
  4. Keep records of the purchase.  If something goes south, you’ll have evidence that you didn’t buy the cards in a dark alley on the wrong side of town.
  5. Buy only the physical cards that you plan to spend soon.  Holding gift cards for a long time isn’t good practice anyway!  Ideally you should plan to spend the cards before the return guarantee expires for those cards.  You want to be covered in case the seller digs up the number for the card and spends it down somehow before you do.
  6. Plan on spending electronic gift codes immediately.  Electronic codes are far easier to spend after they’re sold than physical cards.  Also, electronic codes don’t carry the same level of guarantee from the discount sites that physical cards do.  But, it’s also easier for the buyer to spend them, so there you go!
  7. If a website offers warnings about transferring balances to store cards, listen to them.  They have likely had above-average issues with some retailers canceling customers’ accounts and draining card balances when the card is suspected or reported stolen.  They don’t want to have to cover any more losses than they have to; it’s not fun for the hapless buyer, either.
  8. Keep things at a simmer.  This means not loading up on big cards.  It also means not getting a whole ton of little ones, because using up three or more cards in one purchase could arouse suspicion.
  9. Above all, use common sense.  I know that Walmart cards don’t go for much more than a few percent off of face value.  A website offering them at 30% off is a huge red flag.  If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

How has your experience been with discounted gift cards?  If you use them, how do you use them safely?

Five items to stay powered up and warm

The winter weather in our area, like other places in the country, has been pretty bone-chilling the past few days.  Not nearly as bad as in the northeast, but still chilly.

We learned the hard way a few years back that we weren’t quite prepared for a multi-day loss of power.  We had kind neighbors, and that got us through.  The experience motivated us to prepare a bit so that we could be the kind neighbors the next time around.

Our heat was zapped … literally

This weekend, we had gale-force winds on top of sub-zero temperatures.  The winds caused power fluctuations at our place.  We lost power for only about 15 seconds, but a surge blew out the blower motor in our furnace.

We had thought that the main electronic component in these was a capacitor, but more recent models, like ours, have brushless motors controlled by integrated circuits.  These electronically commutated motors, or ECMs, are more efficient than the older models.

But, like most other electronic controls, there’s no way to fix them except by replacing the whole thing, at much greater expense.  We got it replaced yesterday, but even with a substantial “friends and family” discount it was nearly $500.  Ouch!

Some very-nice-to-have equipment for cold days like this

This power surge killed one of our two main heating units for a couple of days.  Certainly not a disaster, but a bit inconvenient and a tad expensive to fix.

Here is a list of a few pieces of equipment that are very nice to have on hand, installed and ready to go, when cold weather strikes:

  • Whole-house surge protector.  Our HVAC person recommended that we get a whole-house surge protector because (a) the same thing could happen again, and (b) electrical problems like this aren’t covered by warranty.  We have surge-protecting power strips on our sensitive electronics, but since the furnace blowers run off of the 240-volt lines, they weren’t protected at all.  The whole-house surge protectors we were looking at are around $200.  A friend recommended having them installed by a licensed electrician, since insurance companies tend to base claims on that.
  • Gas or diesel generator.  We’ve had our generator for about ten years now, and have only needed to use it a few times.  We have enough generator power to keep our sump pump, heat, and refrigeration going.  We also start it up periodically to maintain it, and put some gas stabilizer in the fuel to keep it from getting too stale.
  • Auxiliary power transfer switch or whole-house generator.  An upgrade for us as of a couple of years ago was a generator transfer switch that got rid of the mess of extension cords from the generator.  This allows proper switching from line power to generator power for pre-selected circuits in your house.  (The model linked above allowed us to choose ten.)  I say “proper” switching because it isolates line power from the circuits being powered by the generator.  The generator plugs into the switch box and everything else stays plugged in as-is.
  • Whole-house generator.  A whole-home generator is a step above the power transfer switch.  Once power goes down for a period of time, it just … works.  No need to go out into the cold, even.  These run several thousand dollars, whereas the generator and the switch were about $1,000 together.
  • Extra heaters.  Our house has a gas fireplace, so that came in handy.  Also, having a few space heaters hanging around is better than nothing, especially if the electricity is still on.  Those kept the downstairs from getting too cold.  If you have a wood stove or the like, you’re already set.

What other pieces of equipment do you have to help hedge against the effects of cold, harsh weather?

If margins are thin, discounts are tough

Do you notice how some stores seem to have 50%-off sales a lot of the time?  Does this make you think that the regular prices are about 100% too high?

Walmart and Amazon.com aren’t like this at all.  These two retailers are perhaps best known for their low prices.  To offer low prices every day, they have lots of efficiencies built into their business models, and very small profit margins.

Some discount tricks don’t work as consistently

Many stores offer coupons to bring in shoppers.  But aside from those, there are still a few ways to shave a few percent off here and there on many purchases:

  • Rewards credit cards.  An appropriate rewards credit cards can knock off one to three percent from nearly every purchase (which is a great deal if you don’t carry a balance on that card, and a horrible deal if you do!)  (View Additional Cash Back Credit Card Offers Here)
  • Discounted gift cards.  With a bit of planning it’s usually possible to do even better than the best rewards cards with discounted gift cards.  Places like Raise.com and Cardpool.com broker unused gift cards and sell them to buyers for less than their face value.
  • Rebate sites.  Sign up for free, click through to a store to buy something, get a rebate.  It’s that easy.  And there are a bunch of them.  (Compare rebates at your favorite stores here.)

How do Amazon.com and Walmart fare for discounted gift cards?

The discount on gift cards from some stores is pretty good.  Some Pier 1 Imports cards are currently 25% off face value at Raise.com.

But what about Walmart gift cards?  Cardpool.com is offering them now for … 4,5%.  A much lower discount. At least there’s a good supply of them.

As for Amazon.com cards, they’re even harder to come by.  GiftCardZen.com has only three cards now. They’re each in the neighborhood of $500 apiece, and the discount is a whopping … 1.5%.  Razor thin discount.  But if you have the Amazon.com Rewards Card as we do, that nets a 3% rebate. Granted, it’s in the form of Amazon.com gift cards, but we spend enough there that it won’t go to waste.

How about rebate sites?

Well, for Walmart.com, as of now, TopCashBack.com and BeFrugal.com are each offering up to 4% off.  (Purchases from some departments give less than a 4% rebate.)  When prices are already as low as they are, there just isn’t much left to distribute.

The same websites offer 8.5% back on Amazon.com purchases — in certain departments.  Again, just not much to distribute around to affiliates, and hence to rebate sites.

When margins are thin, getting discounts is tough.  But this usually means that the price is pretty good to begin with.