'Tis the season when you're starting to think about gift cards.
Not all gift cards are created equal, so it pays to know what you're getting.
Recently, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, Navy Exchange Service Command and Marine Corps Exchange began accepting each other's gift cards. You can now use an MCX gift card at a Navy exchange or an AAFES exchange, for example. (Coast Guard exchanges do not sell gift cards.)
As with anything you buy, compare terms. The exchanges' gift cards compare favorably with a lot of other gift cards.
Always check the back of the card, or any information on the packaging, to determine extra costs. Make sure the recipient gets this information, or your gift may not be worth as much.
Some things to consider:
• Does the gift card have an additional purchase fee? You might pay $4.95 for a $50 gift card, for example. So you're paying $54.95 for $50 of buying power. Exchange gift cards have no processing or purchasing fees. If you buy a $50 gift card at an exchange, you spend $50.
• Is there an expiration date? Some gift cards expire if they're not used by a certain date. Exchange gift cards have no expiration date.
• Are fees charged when you don't use the gift card within a certain period of time? Navy gift cards have no inactive fees, but Marine Corps and AAFES gift cards do: A $2 monthly fee is charged when a card is inactive for 24 consecutive months. The $2 is deducted each month until the card is used again or depleted.
These fees are a lot less onerous than those of many other gift cards outside the gates — some start charging after six months of nonuse and may charge more than $2 a month, said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.
• Are there monthly maintenance fees? The military exchanges' gift cards have none.
• Can the gift cards be replaced if lost or stolen? In most cases, they cannot. But Navy exchange officials do their best to accommodate customers in these situations, said Mike Powers, director of retail operations.
"If the account number is available, along with proof of purchase, we have issued replacement gift cards," he said.
• In general, gift cards do not have the same kind of consumer protections as credit cards and debit cards, Fox said, adding that "it's very unclear what, if any, federal protections apply" if, for example, you are double-charged for something.
• Some states place restrictions on gift cards, such as limiting fees and expiration dates, but they don't usually apply to bank gift cards. The nonprofit Consumers Union keeps an updated fact sheet on states' gift card protection laws at http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_financial_services/003889.html">http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_financial_services/003889.html.
• If you're giving a retail gift card, make sure it's for a place where the recipient will shop. If you're considering a gift card from a retailer other than the exchanges, or a bank gift card, comparison shop. The Montgomery County (Md.) Division of Consumer Affairs does an annual report on gift card terms and fees, which should be updated soon, an official said. It's available at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/ocp">http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/ocp. Scroll down to "Gift Card Reports."
Oldest appliance contest
Who would've thought your old stove or refrigerator could bring you some money? APWagner.com, a Web site that sells appliance parts, wants to find the oldest appliances in the country. The incentive is new appliances, as well as cash. The deadline is Jan. 31.
You don't have to own the appliance to enter the contest, company spokeswoman Christine Smith said, so if you're living in government quarters or rental housing with some out-of-date equipment, you would qualify.
Just upload a video, up to two minutes long, showing you and the appliance to http://www.apwagner.com">http://www.apwagner.com. You also can mail the video and an entry form to an address available at the Web site.
The contest has six categories. If you win for the "Absolute Overall Oldest Appliance," you'll get three new Whirlpool appliances and $1,000.
If you don't have an old appliance, send in a video showing your newer appliance. The craziest entry will win three new GE appliances and $1,000. The oldest range and oldest refrigerator entries will win new replacement appliances plus $1,000; the oldest washer and dryer entries will win new replacements plus $500.
Got that? You're good to go.