An unwanted gift card? Try an online exchange

01/22/2014 4:41 PM

01/22/2014 4:41 PM

A well-intentioned uncle sent your 8-year-old a Toys R Us gift card for Christmas. But rather than Transformers or Legos, your youngster really wants a nice leather basketball from his favorite sporting goods store.

Call this an opportunity to check out gift card exchanges.

These online swap shops have proliferated into a mini-industry in recent years — growing in lockstep with the sales of gift cards. According to the National Retail Federation, gift card sales this past holiday season were expected to hit a record of nearly $30 billion.

That probably means plenty of unwanted cards could wind up tossed into your teen’s sock drawer, never to be touched again. And with about $360 in gift cards already lying around the average household, CardHub estimates, why waste more money, not to mention someone’s generous but not quite perfect gift idea?

There are numerous credible and secure online gift exchange websites, including those by Card Hub, Cardpool and Raise. The businesses offer similar services. You can swap an unwanted card for a better choice, or you can sell them for cash, although it will probably be at a discount from the face value to cover transaction and processing costs.

I listed a $50 Dick’s Sporting Goods gift card for sale on Card Hub and the best offer for it was $39.

While searching for gift card exchanges online — and there were dozens of choices — I came across a site called Gift Card Granny. It’s basically an information clearinghouse that compares buying and selling arrangements on the top exchanges.

The site is easy to navigate. Simply find the retailer you’re looking for and compare prices, then click through directly to the gift card exchange to complete the transaction.

One of the top-rated sites is Card Hub. It lists about 6,000 plastic and electronic versions of gift cards. Card Hub also offers a Facebook feature, where shoppers can swap cards with friends, family and others.

Despite the ease of use, gift card exchanges have limitations. For example, national and regional brands are listed, but not local merchants’ cards, and you’re required to mail in the card you’re relinquishing.

One cautionary point from the National Retail Federation: Cards sold through some auction sites could be counterfeit and may have no value when redeemed in stores or through retailers’ websites. Research the online marketplaces, read the reviews and stick with the best-known names, which verify the value and authenticity of the products on their sites.

To get the most from gift cards, experts recommend using them within a year, although I think three months is a better target.

But if the plastic gets misplaced or becomes a $50 bookmark in your high schooler’s algebra textbook, don’t despair. Federal regulations enacted in 2010 prohibit the expiration of gift cards before five years have elapsed since their sale and restrict inactivity fees from chipping away at the face value until a card has not been touched for 12 consecutive months. A few states have also layered on additional protections.

Remember, a gift card is money. So if your youngster doesn’t want to spend it, consider handing over the card (or the cash after redeeming it) to a favorite charity.

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