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The lowdown on gift cards -- Page 2

Anyone receiving a gift card should immediately check for monthly maintenance fees. A $25 gift card could get whittled down to nothing before you know it. If your gift card comes with a monthly maintenance fee, you'll want to use it promptly. Whoever gave you the gift card meant that money for you, not the bank or retailer.

6. How do I check my gift-card balance?
Many general-purpose gift cards allow you to check your balance online and by calling a toll-free number. With store-specific gift cards, you may be able to check your balance online, in stores or by calling a toll-free number.

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It's also a good idea to keep track of your balance on your own. Stash receipts for purchases made with your gift card in a safe place. That way you'll know precisely how much value is left on the card. Those receipts will also come in handy if your card is lost or stolen. With some gift-card programs, you have to supply your most recent receipt before a replacement card will be sent to you.

7. What happens if my gift card is lost or stolen?
With some retail gift cards, if you lose the cards you're just plain out of luck. For example, Barnes and Noble will not replace a gift card if it is lost or stolen.

Other retailers are much more lenient when it comes to lost or stolen cards. Both Bloomingdale's and Macy's will issue you a new card as long as you have proof of your most recent purchase.

Some general-purpose gift cards will send you a replacement card as well, but you may have to pay a fee. Replacement card fees range from $5.95 to $10.

Be sure to find out what recourse you have, if any, if your gift card is lost or stolen, and guard your card accordingly. It's best to treat a $50 gift card as you would treat $50 in cash. And don't forget to hang on to your receipts. You may need them to get a replacement card.

8. Can I exchange my gift card for cash?
Thinking of cashing out a gift card? Think again.

Many gift cards aren't redeemable for cash. Plus, the general-purpose gift cards that will send you a check for your remaining balance are probably going to zap you with a substantial fee. Check processing fees can be as high as $10 or $15.

You'll get a lot more value out of your card by shopping with it rather than trying to cash it in.

9. Can I use my gift card to withdraw cash at an ATM?
Some general-purpose gift cards come with PIN numbers, so you may be able to use them to get cash from ATMs.

The downside is, once again, fees. The Bank of America Visa Gift Card charges you a $1.50 service fee each time you withdraw cash from the card at an ATM. The CharterOne MasterCard Gift Card charges you $2 for each ATM withdrawal.

10. Can I make a purchase for an amount greater than my gift card?
Yes, you can, but you'll need to be careful. First off, be sure to tell the merchant in advance that your gift card will only cover a portion of your purchase. If you don't, your gift card will be declined.

Be aware that some stores, including department stores, will only accept two forms of payment for a single purchase if the second form of payment is cash or a personal check.

So if you plan on using your gift card to pay part of a store bill, it's a good idea to bring cash or your checkbook along with you.

Want to apply the few remaining dollars of a gift card to an online purchase? It's going to be tough. Most Internet merchants do not accept two forms of payment for a single purchase. So unless you can find an online purchase for the exact amount remaining on your gift purchase, you're probably out of luck.

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-- Posted: Aug. 27, 2004

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