2012-04-19 / Opinion
New Jersey found a pot of gold, and wants to keep it
There’s a big tussle going on between the state of New Jersey and many of the companies that issue and distribute gift cards over who gets to keep the money left on the table if Cousin Brucie only spends $45 of the $50 gift card you sent him for graduation from tech school or, better yet, forgets about using it altogether. Naturally, everyone with a dog in the fight claims they’re just looking out for the consumer — but by the time summer is over, you may have to buy them out of state, or over the Internet, because they’ll no longer be available here .
Over the last decade or so, these cards have become themost popular formof gifting in the nation because they’re convenient, and generally appreciated by the recipients. In our family’s case, for example, we’ve got a lot of nieces, nephews, inlaws, friends and other bandits who we usually buy for at Christmas and birthdays, etc. And until these gift cards became available, it always gave us agita trying to figure out what special gift they might need or appreciate. They usually wound up getting new socks.
I sure don’t know what music my 20- year-old nephew is listening to these days (The Flaming Grease Monkeys?), what clothes my nieces think are au courant (they were a tad cool the year we sent them Harley- Davidson T-shirts), or what tool the handymen in our extended family have misplaced and need to replace (“Where’s my retractable gazinta? That’s the third one I’ve lost this month!”). But in a single stop at the kiosk at the grocery store, we can cover them all in minutes. Home Depot cards for the handy, iTunes cards for the music lovers, Target cards for the folks setting up a new house, Visa or American Express cards, good anywhere, for those for whomwe haven’t a clue. The options are nearly endless and everyone is usually happy.
Nationwide, merchants sell an estimated $100 billion of these “stored value” cards annually, and here’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: about $6 billion of that is left unspent every year. In the past, many of the card companies charged “maintenance” or inactivity fees that nibbled away at the balance over time, and if there was still money on the cards after a couple of years, they took that as well. That system was good for the card consortium, but not so good for consumers.
New Jersey pols, meanwhile, were covetous. You just can’t leave piles of money lying around where this state’s politicians can see them, because it will drive ’em crazy trying to figure out how to get their hands on it. They’re like carnival grifters.
In 2010, New Jersey passed a law that made us the only state in the nation to declare unused gift card balances “unclaimed property” after two years of inactivity. Instead of allowing those balances to go back to the merchants and card companies, however, New Jersey claimed them, and projected collecting about $79 million in 2011, the first year .
As you can imagine, folks in the card industry went bonkers and got an injunction that put everything on hold for a while. But that injunction has been lifted, and unless something unforeseen happens, New Jersey will start collecting the leavings this June, to the tune of close to $100 million a year. It will require retailers who sell the cards to collect the ZIP codes, and potentially the addresses, of people who buy them so the state can track cards purchased here. Oh, and by the way, the state isn’t going to just claim the unused balances on gift cards — they’re going to take unused money from travelers’ checks and money orders as well!
The card folks are going loopy again, of course. Last week, AmEx said that rather than comply with the law, the company would no longer sell its cards in New Jersey. Blackhawk Network, which supplies 175 varieties of gift cards to 1,300 state retailers, also said it would quit doing business here by June, as did InComm, which supplies 2,500 retail outlets with gift cards for brands like Visa, iTunes and Macy’s. Other companies that supply gift cards at retail outlets are expected to follow suit — which could make it difficult for state residents to buy them conveniently because they’ll have to get them online, or purchase them in another state.
If you believe what the folks at the state are saying, New Jersey is doing this only for the good of consumers. It will only “hold” the money indefinitely, and to get it back, all people have to do is write the state and ask for it — assuming, of course, that they can prove they have a right to the cash. Easy peasy.
Does anyone believe that? Anyone? How long would that big, and growing, pot of “unclaimed” money sit there before someone decides to use it to shore up the state budget? I’m not thinking years — I’m thinking nanoseconds.
So thanks, Gov. Christie and friends, for screwing up my holiday shopping routine. And all you nieces, nephews, in-laws and assorted bandits can thank him next year — when you open your gift from us and find socks.
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There’s a bill working its way through the Assembly, sponsored by Democratic lawmakers Patrick Diegnan Jr., Paul Moriarty and Gordon Johnson to reverse the whole thing. Think the governor will veto it if it passes? Online Magic Eight Ball says, “Likely.”
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I heard a story on the radio about a guy who has invented the world’s most annoying alarm clock for folks who ignore the usual variety. This one emits a truly obnoxious noise, and to turn it off, you have to get out of bed and go into another room, where you have to type the day’s date into a keypad to make the thing stop screeching (either that, or smash it to smithereens). The inventor, Paul Sammut — who says orders are pouring in at $350 a pop— is from Hoboken. Go, Paul! You’ve invented another way to help us start the day in a bad mood! I wonder if he takes gift cards.
Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at email@example.com.