The New Warzone: Store Credit Accounts, Gift Cards

Offers with promised discounts can backfire, says Chicago BBB

By Kim Vatis
|  Wednesday, Dec 1, 2010  |  Updated 5:30 PM CDT
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Just as many are trying to climb out of a valley of debt, there's a new mountain to climb:  store credit and gift cards.

With the average debt load for Chicagoans floating around the $5,000 mark, many shoppers sign up for store credit accounts to take advantage of an immediate discount, which can sometimes be as high as 20 percent off.

"They are all enticing.  That's where they make their money," said Steve Bernas of the Chicago Better Business Bureau.

But those offers, with their promised discounts, can sometimes backfire.  Bernas warns that if a shopper can't pay off the interest rate, which might be more than 20 percent, the "discount" received upon sign-up can be negated.

Some consumers say they just open the accounts to get the discount, pay them off right away to avoid the interest and then close the account, but that strategy can backfire too, said Bernas.

"If you do a number of them, you will lower your credit score," he explained.

Also big hits around the holidays are gift cards.  While new federal gift card rules do make them more user-friendly, mandating that fees be disclosed, that cards are valid for at least five years and their expiration dates be detailed on the card, consumers still need to be vigilant.

"The big print giveth what the small print taketh away," warned Bernas.

Among his warnings:  look closely to see if there is a purchase fee or inactivity fees. It'll be written on the back of the card.

Retailers have to wait a year before they can charge a fee for inactivity, and that fee must be disclosed, but they have until January 2011 to make sure all of those changes are printed on the card.

And if the card expires but still has funds, you can request a replacement card at no charge, but that must be done within four years and 364 days.

The lesson:  if you don't see the rules and fees listed on the card, ask the retailer so you don't lose out. 

The website BankRate.com offers a comparison of the largest retailers and other major card issuers such as American Express, Visa and Mastercard.

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