Service of Reading the Small Print III

December 17th, 2015

Categories: Uncategorized

I love receiving gift cards. If you’re in the market to buy some this season, take heed. I had a run-in with two issued by a company with an otherwise stellar reputation: American Express. If you give or receive this kind of card, my experience should be helpful.

First, if you use the card to pay for certain types of services, your bill will be subject to a 20 percent surcharge to cover the tip. It will automatically be added to the total whether or not this is the amount you had in mind or whether you prefer giving tips in cash.

The small print that comes with the card is fuzzier about this than the person who called me from AmEx was. She called because I was enraged enough at what happened to us when I tried to use the card in a restaurant that I wrote two men: the corporation’s executive VP corporate affairs and communications and the president of consumer products and services—but I’m jumping ahead.

According to the enclosure that came with the cards in teensy, tiny print [the capital letters are theirs], “Restaurants, hair salons and some other types of Merchants may obtain an authorization on the Card for an amount of up to 20% more than the total service bill to cover any gratuity that may be added.” The person the suits asked to call me said I would be charged 20 percent as did the customer service person I spoke with from the restaurant where I tried, unsuccessfully, to use the card.

So what happened? It was embarrassing. I was treating my husband to dinner and presented my gift cards. After a long time, the waiter returned to the table to say the cards didn’t work so he couldn’t redeem the money. Before we met there, I’d called AmEx to confirm that I didn’t need authorization to use the cards, that in fact there was money in each [I’d been given an empty card once before!] and checked that the restaurant accepted the cards: All clear.

After a frustrating amount of time on the phone to an AmEx customer service person who hardly spoke English and who took eight to 10 minutes to figure out what 20 percent of our total bill would be–I hung up and my husband paid for dinner with his credit card.

The executive office staffer who called to calm me after her bosses got my letter said someone from AmEx would contact the restaurant to train staff to redeem such cards. I didn’t ask why redeeming money from a gift card is so difficult that it required training.

I was reluctant to use the cards but $70 is $70 and why should American Express keep the money? So after a few months I gave the gift card another try selecting a place that didn’t involve service charges. I checked with the customer service dept at the grocery store I visit weekly and was told to present the cards to the cashier. I did. Neither worked. So on the next business day I called the executive office staffer who confirmed that the cards were good and suggested I buy something for less than the value on the card. I’m game. She’s nice. We have a friendly relationship. We laugh. Her phone number is in my mobile. I promised to report if the card works or not.

What did I learn about this gift card? 1) It’s best not to purchase a service with it where tips are standard if you want the freedom to give what you think is right and 2) Make certain that your purchases come in under the amount of the gift card and expect to forfeit some of the money. Why the latter? What are the chances that you will owe precisely $50 and $20 for anything you buy?

Do you think that the money left on millions of gift cards is enough to make this complicated, convoluted situation worthwhile to a major corporation? Am I the only one to run into such snags? Have you confronted similar hurdles with gift cards or in attempts to redeem anything else? Have you given or received a gift that turned out to be more of a pain than a treat?

8 Responses to “Service of Reading the Small Print III”

  1. David Reich Said:

    I’ve given AmEx gift cards and bever heard of such a problem. And, as you mention in your post, AmEx has a great reputation for customer service and backing the cardholder.

    I’m sure millions are left unused on gift cards. I know the MTA comes out way ahead on its metrocards. I must have 5 in my desk that each have a dollar or less on them — not enough for a ride.

  2. Lucrezia Said:

    Many establishments don’t trust American Express and don’t accept their cards, gift or otherwise. The company charges far too much for its services, and it’s not worth the financial while of small outfits. If given such a gift, it pays to check beforehand whether the restaurant, store & etc. accepts such payment, and if so, what conditions prevail.

    Were I to gift someone in that manner, Master Card or Visa is the way to go. There are few, if any restrictions. Most everyone welcomes those cards.

  3. jeanne Byington Said:


    Brilliant for issuers of such cards! Imagine being able to collect and keep money that belongs to someone else! Caveat Emptor.

  4. jeanne Byington Said:


    Fios gave us a $400 Visa gift card for changing to their service and we never once had troubles redeeming all sorts of things with no strings of any kind! Should I ever give one, if I know that a person loves a store that’s an option or I’d choose a Visa card. I will be curious to see if I will ever see a penny from the ones I have!

  5. hb Said:

    When I was a boy, my grandparents who had 23 grandchildren living all over the world, could not have been expected to produce, package and ship 23 gifts. So they deposited $10.00 into the savings accounts of each at the local savings bank. We, the children, understood and were grateful.

    A few decades later, a relative whom I did not like, gave me a ten dollar gift certificate, which then would have hardly paid for one LP, at a record shop on the other side of the city. As I was working 10-12 hour days and had a demanding home life, to have to cut 1 1/2 – 2 hours out of my day to collect it, annoyed me. I threw it away.

    If you cannot give a meaningful physical present, why not give cash? I’ve been told that cash is crude and distasteful, and no doubt it is, but the point of a present is to accommodate the recipient, not to enhance the image of the giver.

    My experience with gift cards and certificates has been mixed to negative. They often are inconvenient or limiting or complicated to collect, and often they are not collected at all or in full which is wasteful. Suppose the recipient does not patronize the store which issues them? And so forth.

    The best answer of all: So cash is crude. Make a deal with the counterparty: We’ll swap Christmas and/or birthday cards, not gifts. Everybody saves money and aggravation.

  6. jm Said:

    This is a good time to raise this question.

    A few years ago someone in the Westchester Mall told me that many gift cards are lost.

    Last year our teenage grandchildren were together @ a family Christmas dinner. I gave each of them a generic gift card and read on the back that the cards had an expiration date of 6 mos. I told their parents who were surprised,

    So in May of this year I gave my 17 yr old granddaughter cash for her birthday with a token gift & explained that if you lose the card, it’s gone. But you can take whatever amount you need & leave the rest home. She understood and was OK with it.

    Besides I saved money bc gift cards cost $5-$6 depending on the amount. So it was a benefit both ways.

    My Holiday greetings to you.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You were a much more grateful child than I was. When little, my grandfather had few grandchildren–our mother was the oldest–and he was very generous. He gave me a $250 savings bond every Christmas. I wanted a toy or a game or a stuffed animal.

    As for cash is crude, it depends on the culture. I was given wads of it at my first wedding. My mother was rather shocked in a happy way when I gave her a pile of envelopes for safekeeping as I headed off to my honeymoon after the reception! No complaints here!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I didn’t know that customers are charged for gift cards! I just remember that I did buy one at a store I otherwise didn’t frequent and there was no surcharge attached. WOW! Between brisk expiration dates and lost cards and tricky rules to redeem, the gift card business clearly is a lucrative one!

    We just handed out a zillion envelopes with Christmas tips to building staff and others–all cash. I saw no wrinkled noses.

    If anyone wants to hand me cash–or a check–I’m game, especially since I’ve begun to see the dark side of gift cards.

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