The expression, “Looking a gift horse in the mouth;” I think comes from the audaciousness of checking the teeth and gums of a horse someone has given you for free, to check for disease or faults.  Recently, I received, as a gift, a $100 Master Card Gift card. I was elated. It was a raffle prize at my company’s summer beach party. Most of the prizes were $25 gift cards, so I felt very lucky to get one of the only $100 ones.  That was in August, and in January, 5 months later, I decided what to spend the $100 on, a Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angel baseball jersey!  While making the purchase, I was told by the store attendant that there was no money left on the card. Shocked I paid for my purchase with my own money, and later tried to find out what went wrong. Looking at the back of the card I saw the internet address www.mygiftcardsite.com.  I went to that site, typed in my card number and saw that there was no money on the card. How could this be? I called the phone number given on the web-site, and had to go through a series of recordings until I spoke to a real person. They looked up my card, and told me that the card had never been activated, and that I needed to call the vendor who sold me the card.

Now this card was a gift, so I had to go to my employer and find out where it was purchased. After a few days of searching, the company accountant came up with the receipts. It turns out the gift card was purchased over a year ago in 2012!  Looking at the back of the card again I saw that the card company would deduct an inactivity fee of $2.00 per month after 12 consecutive months of inactivity. The card had been purchased in July of 2012, it was now January 2014. The inactivity fees would have begun July of 2013, so 6 months of fees X $2.00 would be $12.00 deducted. There still should have been $88.00 on the card. When I pressed the card company harder, they looked up on the computer and said that this card had never had any money on it, even back in 2012, and that the fault must be with the seller. The seller was Pavilions, a subsidery of Safeway and Vons.  I called the store, and spoke to the manager, and they told me that no refund or new card could be issued without two receipts; the one I had, AND the “activation slip.” I asked my company for a copy of the activation slip, and they said no such slip was on record. After going through Safeway’s customer service and going over their procedures with their store manager, I finally deduced what might have happened. My theory is that the cashier, when ringing up the purchase simply forgot to run the gift card through the scanner. According to the receipts, there were a total of 13 gift cards purchased. This means, my company NEVER paid them the $100 plus the $5.95 processing fee, and my company simply took the card without paying for it. So, it was just a piece of plastic.

I told my boss about this, and he replied rather snidely, “well, at least you had the pleasure of socializing with your co-workers at the beach party.”  I could tell he was taken aback by my complaining about how my gift card was a dud. I must be “looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

The moral of this story is simple. Gift cards are probably one of the biggest scams being legally perpetrated on the consumer the past several decades. When I think of all of the gift cards I have received and never used, or used too late and lost the money it starts to add up.  Think of when you’ve made a purchase using a gift card, and had an odd amount left on the card, and didn’t use it. That is all money in the bank for the gift card company, and money you have lost.

To make matters worse, when I checked the card company, it wasn’t even MasterCard after all. The real company is U.S. Bank National Association!  They license the use of the logo of MasterCard, Visa, American Express, etc. and cleverly disguise their cards exactly as an actual credit card.  However, the aforementioned banking institutions bear no responsibility for the card. It is just a false sense of security these famous bank names provide the gift card.

The lesson I learned is a big one. Gift cards are for the lazy. If the buyer doesn’t want to have to do the thinking to decide what to purchase, just give a gift card. Not a check, not even cash. Pay a processing fee of $5.95 and give them plastic.

Also, I learned, when you get a gift card, use it immediately lest it weather away to nothing. You never know when your lazy benefactor might have purchased it. It could have sat in a desk drawer for months, maybe even years! Inactivity fees are legal and the clock is ticking the moment they are scanned.

I hate being someone who looks a gift horse in the mouth, but the many hours I spent over a two week period trying to get satisfaction made the gift card a major upset, and disappointment, which I would rather do without!

There is a positive note that I can end this blog on. I AM enjoying the Mike Trout Baseball jersey. AND I probably never would have purchased it, if I hadn’t received that bogus gift card.



  1. Update: Ever since I reported the worthless gift card my employer had given me, the owners changed their actions and now hand out only cash in envelopes and no longer use gift cards…

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