Gift Cards, Rebates, and Endless Frustration: How Square, Inc. Saved the Day

A few weeks ago I purchased a few new photography lenses from Canon USA through B&H Photo Video using their online store. The lenses I purchased – the new Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM & Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM – were both (and at the time of this article, are currently) available with $300 mail-in rebates, each, for a total of $600.

The Canon “Select EF Lenses Mail-In Rebate” reads, in-part:
“Receive an American Express Reward Card by mail with purchase of the select Canon Product(s) shipped from and sold by Authorized Canon Dealers (of which B&H is one).” Then, in small print, at the bottom, states: “Allow 60 days for processing of claim.”

After my lenses arrived and I had the UPC and receipt with which to fulfill the claim, I mailed my materials in to Canon next-day. In 1.5-2 weeks time, I received both of my AmEx cards in the mail, and was surprisingly shocked at how quickly they arrived.

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Now, because I had ordered both of these lenses using a credit card, my intent was to 1) sell the Version I of both lenses, using the funds to help pay down the debt, and 2) treat the AmEx cards as cash, applying them to the credit debit, too.

Step 1 worked out fine. Step 2, however, did not. As it turns out, American Express sends you an additional gift with your rebate card: a two-page, 6pt font of verbose legal jargon, also known as their ‘American Express Reward Card Cardholder Agreement’. It should be noted, by the way, that any and all information contained in this agreement is unavailable to the consumer prior to receiving a written copy in the mail. The copy I received exists nowhere online, as American Express confirmed when I spoke with them on the phone, and as I confirmed through Google searches.

In this agreement various legal nuances are outlined, but one in particular forestalled my plan to get cash for the card(s), thus paying off my credit card debt. It reads as follows:  “The Card cannot be used for ATM cash withdrawals or for recurring billing charges (such as monthly utilities or subscriptions).” 

Of course, I can’t complain too much about this, as it is made known in the Canon rebate form at the very bottom, stating: “The American Express Reward Card…is a prepaid card issued by American Express Prepaid Card Management Corporation that is usable only at merchants in the United States…that accept American Express Cards, except for…ATM’s, and may not be used for recurring billing charges.” 

Soon thereafter, the idea that I was going to get cash for this card slowly began to fade, and the question of how to make a $600 collective payment on my credit card began to grow.

Knowing what I did, I began a search online to see how – if at all – I could turn my two $300 AmEx cards into cash. Craigslist? eBay? A friend? Some of the methods I came across were quite elaborate, to say the least; apparently this is a much discussed issue.

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One of the most ‘unethical’ ploys suggested by online community members was to make a transaction at a local retailer equal to the value of the card(s), then to return the merchandise for a cash refund. The issues here are several. A) It’s pretty unethical, B) Not many of my local retailers offer cash refunds – with the exception of Walmart – and, C) Even if you found a retailer to offer you a cash refund for returned merchandise for goods purchased with a 3rd party gift-card, there’s generally a cap, and that cap is usually around $25.

So then there’s Craigslist. Seems like a pretty great option, until you start to break it down. Imagine you meet with someone who wants to buy the card. Of course, that person needs to verify that the value of the card is accurate, so they call the customer service number on the back and use the card’s numbers, expiration date, and security code to authenticate the value. Well that’s good and swell, until of course they change their mind, and back out. Now they have all of the information they need to make a purchase (if only online), as they’ve been exposed to all the sensitive card information they need, meanwhile you’re left high and dry. Not to mention: transferring the card is also a violation of the “agreement” you receive with the card, which reads, plainly: “The Card is not transferrable.” Oh. The card also comes with your full name embellished on the front. So there’s that to get around, too, providing you do transfer it.

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eBay might be another viable option, but the scamming possibilities are almost literally endless, not to mention, even if you did sell it, you’re going to need to pay eBay’s selling fees (a percentage of final sale value), PayPal fees, and any shipping charges. Don’t forget to tack on time and gas to mail the thing.

One of the safest and most secure way to sell your prepaid/gift-card is to use a reputable online purchaser of gift cards, and there are many. A 2012 MSN Money article by Donna Freedman suggests trying websites similar to this one. What’s great about this site is that it allows you to compare different card-purchasing sites, some of which – in my case – offered up to 85% cash-value for the card, and even offered an 89.25% option in exchange for an Amazon Gift Card. But alas, 85% of an Amex Card valued at $300 is only $255.. Not all too bad, really… but I suppose it just depends on how desperate for cash you really are.

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The second to last option is one I came up with, but I’m fuzzy on whether or not it would actually work. Essentially it involves purchasing what is called a ‘PayPal My Cash card‘, and presumes you already have a PayPal account. Basically, the PayPal My Cash card is like a gift-card specifically for PayPal in that any amount loaded on the card (between $20-$500) is then intended to be transferred to your online PayPal account. These cards are available at a few local retailers, CVS being one of them. Basically, you’d go to CVS with your prepaid AmEx card, purchase a PayPal My Cash card with the AmEx card for the full value – in this case, $300 – then, transfer the funds from the PayPal My Cash card to your online PayPal account using the steps provided on the PayPal My Cash website. Afterwards, you’d withdraw the funds to your bank, or transfer them to another (domestic) PayPal account – for free – and you’re done.

Now, having called PayPal a few times to confirm this, I received mixed answers. Some agents I talked to said it was a violation of the terms of service with respect to money laundering prevention (though I could find no written copy of this), while other agents (uninformed the initial funds were coming from an AmEx gift-card) said there would be no problem. Perhaps one day I will purchase a $20 Amex card, then with it buy a PayPal My Cash card, transfer the funds to my PayPal account, then attempt to withdraw the funds or transfer them to a friend with a PayPal account to test my theory. But until then, the best solution to get the most from your prepaid card is…

Square, Inc. The number one, best, safest, fastest, solution – which simultaneously produces the closest cash value to the AmEx Card – is absolutely Square. If you’ve not heard of Square, they’re a “merchant services aggregator and mobile payments company based in San Francisco, California” (thank you, Wikipedia). This solution, recommended by my friend and talented Dallas-based photographer Eric Garcia, ended up yielding the best outcome, for me. 

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With the minimal 2.75% for swiped transactions (located in detail under Square’s ‘Fees and Pricing Plans), Square only took $8.25 per-card, with no additional costs to transfer the funds directly into my linked business checking account. In just two flat minutes I swiped both of my Amex cards, signed my name, and deposited the funds. Hours of headache concluded, funds retained (and nearly at original value!), and credit card debt paid off. A complete success.

I can definitely conclude that all future rebate cards ineligible for actual cash will be redirected through Square, but I’m always curious to find alternatives. If you know of better, faster, or different alternatives to get cash for your prepaid card, list them below in the comments.

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