Local News

The season for gift-card giving?

SEBRING - Have a hankering to eat at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse?

Instead of paying full price for a meal, you can buy two $50 gift cards at Costco Wholesale's web site for $79.99 and get free shipping.

How about a $10 restaurant gift card for $4 from restaurant.com?

The web site offers bonus gift card deals for various quantities and dollar amounts that can be redeemed for certificates at participating restaurants.

At Red Lobster, you can purchase a gift card of $25 or more and receive a $5 off bonus coupon while Outback Steakhouse is giving a free $20 bonus card for very $100 spent on Outback Steakhouse gift cards through Dec. 31. The cards have to be used by a certain time.

Discount and bonus gift cards, which come with extra cash value, are some of the many items shoppers will be eyeing this holiday season.

The average consumer will spend $163.16 on gift cards, a 4 percent increase from last year, the National Retail Federation forecasts this year.

A few years back, handing somebody a gift card may have been considered tacky.

Not any more.

The NRF's survey from this year said 60 percent would like to get gift cards, and it's the seventh year in a row gift cards have been among its list of the most desired gifts.

These days, people can personalize their gift cards with a family picture or a personal message and even email the card if they are pressed for time, although uploading a picture on a card costs a little extra.

Web sites have also cropped up where people can sell unused gift cards or buy unredeemed cards for less than the face value, although the Federal Trade Commission cautions against some of these sites.

"Buy from sources you know and trust," it warns. "Avoid buying gift cards from online auction sites, because the cards may be counterfeit or may have been obtained fraudulently."

According to creditcards.com, auction sites such as eBay often offer discounts on cards - but it warns shoppers to do some research to make sure the card is legitimate.

"Check the seller's ratings and ask about any expiration date or dormancy fees that might apply," it says.

Creditcards.com also mentions some gift-card specific sites.

"Swapagift.com and PlasticJungle.com are niche sites that cater to people looking to buy, sell and trade their gift cards," according to creditcards.com

New rules that went into effect Aug. 22, 2010 eliminated many junk fees on gift cards and loosened restrictions on gift card use, helping to cut down the volume of unredeemed gift cards.

Now, money on a gift card cannot expire for at least five years from the date the card was purchased, or from the last date more money was loaded onto the card.

Inactivity fees also can be charged only after a card hasn't been used for at least one year, and can be charged only once per month.

But shoppers may be charged a fee to buy the card or to replace a lost or stolen card, and the reason why retailers load extra cash on gift cards is because so many go unused despite the changes in law, some say.

Brian Riley, a senior research director in the retail banking and cards practice at TowerGroup told philly.com last year that he expected $2 billion in gift-card purchases to go unredeemed last year. Since 2005, he estimated the value of unused gift cards at a whopping $41 billion.

The FTC also advises gift-card purchasers to read the fine print before buying.

"Is there a fee to buy the card? If you buy a card by phone or online, are there shipping and handling fees? If you don't like the terms and conditions, buy elsewhere."

It also asks shoppers to find out if fees will be deducted from the card after purchasing it.

Here are some bonus gift card offers from restaurants. Check to see if the cards have to be used by a certain time.

Ruby Tuesday: Purchase $50 in gift cards in-store or online by Dec. 31 and receive a free $15 bonus coupon plus free ground shipping. You can also get a $5 bonus coupon if you purchase $25 in gift cards.

Carrabba's Italian Grill: Receive $20 in bonus gift card when you buy $100 in gift cards.

LongHorn Steakhouse: Receive $5 off two adult entrees when you buy $25 in gift cards online.

Olive Garden: Purchase $50 in gift cards and get a $10 offer for yourself.

Texas Roadhouse: receive $5 bonus eGift Card when you buy $30 in Texas Roadhouse Gift Cards online.

Steak 'n Shake: receive a $5 bonus card when you buy $20 in gift cards.

Macaroni Grill: receive a $5 bonus card when you buy $25 in gift cards.