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Gift cards: Good & bad news

By Janna Herron ·
Monday, February 13, 2012
Posted: 4 pm ET

Got some unused gift cards left over from the holidays, but don't think you'll use them? (About 5 percent to 7 percent of gift cards go unredeemed every year, according to Plastic Jungle.)

Now you can turn them into airline miles.

United Continental on Monday unveiled its MileagePlus Gift Card Exhange that allows memebers of the frequent-flier program to cash in the remaining value on retail gift cards for miles. The program accepts cards from more than 60 major retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Pottery Barn and Home Depot, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

It's a simple online transaction. MileagePlus members log into their account online, choose a retailer and enter the gift card information. An offer for your card will appear and if you accept it, voila! The balance on the gift card converts into miles in the member's account.

However, the program only accepts gift cards with at least $25 on them, and you can't pool cards together to meet the $25 threshold, according to the Trib.

How much you get for each card varies depending on the demand for that type of gift card, the report elaborates. The transaction also includes a 7.5 percent federal excise tax, or $1.88 on each $25 gift card.

In other gift cards news, more than 15,000 signed a petition to get Starbucks to remove its arbitration clause and class-action ban from its gift card agreement. The terms stipulate that consumers can only settle a dispute with the coffee retailer through arbitration and cannot take the company to court or join with other consumers to create a class-action lawsuit.

"Forced arbitration and class bans eviscerate consumers' rights," said Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel with Public Citizen, the group that put together the petition.

The effort comes after the Supreme Court last month upheld the sanctity of arbitration clauses in credit card agreements. The highest court ruled that customers who sign credit card agreements with these clauses cannot fight fees or charges in court.

However, a federal judge refused to dismiss an antitrust suit against Citi and Discover that alleges the two conspired to force credit card customers to sign mandatory arbitration clauses or were refused the card if they didn't. Bank of America, Capital One and Chase have all settled the decade-old case.

"The case really illustrates the fact that banks are in favor of arbitration agreements because it's a lot cheaper and a lot less of a hassle than court or class-action suits," says Michelle De Mooy, a senior associate at Consumer Action. "They have a lot to gain by these agreements."

Should arbitration clauses be banned from gift card or credit card agreements? What do you think?

Follow me on Twitter: @JannaHerron.

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