New Staples Visa gift cards got you down? Try these two weird old tricks

I like buying Visa gift cards from Staples. I buy a lot of Visa gift cards from Staples. But the new Staples Visa gift card design has been causing me enough frustration that it's started to disrupt my mellow manufactured spend lifestyle.

I was tossing and turning the other night, dreading liquidating the $600 in Visa gift cards I had in my sock drawer, when I had a vision, a vision of restoring my manufactured spend equilibrium.

Background: the new Visa gift card design

Via Miles to Memories, here's a handy picture of the "old" Visa gift card design (on the left) and the "new" Visa gift cards (on the right) that have been costing me so much tranquility:

Problem 1: glue used on new peels is sticky and gross

The previous generation of Visa gift cards could be liquidated right out of the package, once you'd removed any obstructing glue dots. The new card design still has the last four digits of the card number set as the default PIN, but the card number is itself covered by a peel that uses the stickiest, most inconvenient glue I've ever seen on a prepaid debit card. While removing the peel, and while being transported in your pocket or wallet, this glue gets everywhere, and can seriously affect the ability of the card to be swiped smoothly through magnetic readers.

Solution 1: don't remove the peel

Remember, you only need the last four digits of the card number in order to use the card as a PIN-enabled prepaid debit card. So instead of removing the peel completely, just peel back the right corner and jot down the last four digits somewhere — for example, on the card itself:

Once you've noted the last four digits, return the peel to its original position: no muss, no fuss.

Problem 2: stray scraps of terms and conditions coming off on cards

This has happened on one third of the cards I've purchased in the last few weeks: a random glue splotch causes a strip of the paper that the card's terms and conditions are printed on to come off on the card, directly opposite the magnetic strip. This catastrophe causes the card to catch every time it's swiped, making it frustrating or even impossible to liquidate using a magnetic card reader. Here's an offending example:

Solution 2: wrap it in receipt paper

This is a trick I learned years ago, but haven't had occasion to use in a long time. But while tossing and turning last night, I remembered: by wrapping a card in receipt paper, you can prevent irregularities in the card's surface from preventing the card's magnetic strip from being recognized. Just hold the receipt paper folded tight around the magnetic strip, position it at the top of the magnetic reader, and give it a smooth stroke:

Result: success on my first swipe, and no awkward insistence that my Walmart cashiers let me swipe my cards over, and over, and over again.

Three notes on gift card purchase and liquidation

There have been a couple developments around gift cards percolating around the travel hacking community for the last week or so. Here's a quick roundup, so readers can use this post to share their own experiences and ideas in the comments.

American Express lowers maximum gift card denomination eligible for cash back

American Express gift cards are a powerful (though not, as some argue, all-powerful) tool for manufacturing spend through the alchemy of adding 1.5% cash back to unbonused spend, in exchange for only being able to liquidate the cards at merchants that will accept American Express gift cards.

As an astute reader pointed out almost immediately when I brought up the subject two weeks ago, cash back portals like TopCashBack have added language eliminating cash back on gift card denominations above $2,000. Since there's a $3.95 purchase fee for each card anyway, I now split my $2,000 cards into separate orders, which also makes transactions easier for me to track.

On the plus side, the total amount of personal and business gift card purchases eligible for cash back remain unchanged at $10,000 and $100,000 per 14 days, respectively. Additionally, I've recently found my American Express gift card orders to be approved almost 100% of the time, a huge improvement over my previous track record and a welcome development.

Staples Visa gift card activation code funny business

As other bloggers have exhaustively documented, the Gift Card Mall Visa gift cards sold by Staples online, and which are shipped out unactivated, have been accompanied much less consistently by the activation codes necessary to activate them.

Sometimes the activation codes arrive days later, sometimes they arrive by e-mail, and sometimes they don't arrive at all. Even worse, the phone numbers that come with the cards no longer direct you to a GiftCardMall representative who can manually activate the cards.

Instead, as reported by Shawn at Miles to Memories, you need to call this number: 1-877-426-2551. The customer service agents there can easily submit an activation order for your cards, and they'll be up and running within a couple hours (sometimes much sooner). For my recent orders, I haven't bothered waiting for the activation codes: I just call the number above as soon as I receive the physical Visa gift cards.

What's the best way to unload American Express for Target cards?

I get asked all the time what I think about various Rube Goldberg methods of buying and liquidating prepaid card products, and I normally have the same response: if you do that, you're cannibalizing methods of manufactured spend you could use to generate additional volume, instead.

Here's a simple example: let's say you have a credit card that bonuses spend at grocery stores, and you have access to PIN-enabled Visa prepaid debit cards at a local grocery store. Once you've purchased a $500 prepaid debit card, you could then register it, click through a cash back site, and buy an American Express gift card to earn an additional 1.5% cash back. This would naturally increase the total value earned on your initial $500 in spend.

The problem is that instead of using a prepaid debit card, you could just buy the American Express gift card with a different, rewards-earning credit card. If that card earned the equivalent of 2% cash back, you'd be earning 3.5% cash back on the transaction rather than 1.5%.

Don't get me wrong: I understand the impulse to earn rewards on both ends of a transaction; indeed, I invented one of the great triumphs of the genre. But the reason such techniques are so few and far between is that the numbers generally don't add up.

An example that came up the other day is the question of the best way to liquidate funds on American Express for Target cards: whether it's shopping through a portal to buy gift cards (see this Doctor of Credit post for vital information about online gift card orders), Simon Malls, or any of the other liquidation methods we have available.

Here's where I find those suggestions ultimately break down: American Express for Target funds are already liquid. You can make ATM withdrawals with the card, up to $400 per day and costing $3 per ATM withdrawal. In other words, American Express for Target loads are the last step in a chain. Whether or not they're also the first step is up to you: if you can load the card directly with a card that rewards bonus points for purchases at Target, that can be a great option. If instead you load them using American Express gift cards, or the many other options available to us, you can get good value that way as well.

But if the problem is that ATM withdrawals are too expensive to make American Express for Target withdrawals profitable for you, the lesson is that the costs and benefits of the technique simply don't work for you, not that you need to add more moving pieces. After all, every one of those moving pieces could simply be funded with a more lucrative, rewards-earning credit card.

Weekend roundup from around the web

I like to periodically clear out my RSS reader and pass along stories that might be of interest to my readers. Here are today's stories:

A joyous and meaningful Memorial Day to all my readers.

In which I let my readers down

On Wednesday of last week a reader tipped me off to a Staples promotion that was being discussed in this FlyerTalk thread. Basically, a portal coupon that probably shouldn't have worked with Visa gift cards was working for Visa gift cards, allowing people to buy $200 gift cards for $191.95.

I was able to place 4 orders before the coupon code I was using started consistently returning errors, meaning I bought $800 in cash equivalents (plus my credit card rewards) for about 4% off of face value. I know a lot of people went a lot bigger, but I had literally just moved and was placing my orders in the midst of the chaos of settling in here, so after I got 4 or 5 errors in a row, I gave up on my valiant effort to put Staples out of business.

I don't regret not placing more orders, since I feel like I did fine. But I do regret not blogging or tweeting about it. That was basically a judgment call, which in retrospect I think I got wrong. There were three factors in play, and I put too much weight on the first two and not enough weight on the third:

  1. My reader communicated the tip to me privately. While he didn't ask me to keep quiet about it, that's always my presumption unless a reader tells me to share a tip according to my discretion. The FlyerTalk thread was light on details and had conflicting information, so it wasn't the kind of source I felt comfortable pointing to unequivocally for this deal.
  2. The deal was clearly a technical error in how the coupon code was being implemented by Staples' order processing system. It was possible that by blogging about the error it would be fixed more quickly, and orders that had already been placed using the coupon code might even be cancelled. Blogging about it would not only not help my readers, it would also hurt anyone who was already taking advantage of the deal.
  3. It was an inherently time-limited deal. If anything, it was most like the United award glitch from last year, where all award tickets passing through Hong Kong priced out at 4 MileagePlus miles each. While those of us who booked tickets for later in the year had our reservations cancelled, those who booked close-in tickets (within a week, I believe) had them honored. For such time-limited deals, I think there's a presumption that the more people who get in on it, the better. This was one of those deals, and it should have been shared as widely as possible so as many people as possible could take advantage of it.

There you have it. I make judgment calls like this all the time, and I like to think I get more of them right than wrong. But I definitely don't get them all right, and I think this was one of those.

What do you think?

Charlotte preview: Miscellany

Since I'm currently trying my best to move out of my current apartment, this will probably be my last full blog post before our get-together in Charlotte this weekend. Unless I change my mind. Do follow me on Twitter for live updates from the event, and because Twitter's fun.

This week, I explained how I used Vanilla-reloadables, Visa Buxx, and PayPal My Cash cards to manufacture the bulk of the $43,000 that ended up counting towards the manufactured spending competition I participated in this March. In addition, I did manufacture some spend in new or different ways than usual, and want to share some of that information here.

Staples Gift Cards

I hate the whole gift card racket, and resisted joining in it for a long time. A lot of people say they like spend they can manufacture sitting at their computer, but not me: I prefer to go out and buy something physical that I can keep track of and be responsible for depositing, liquidating, etc. The whole idea of relying on the US Postal Service or UPS for a smooth cycle of spend is antithetical to me.

But, it is very lucrative.

So in March I continued my experiments with Staples $100 gift cards, purchased using my US Bank Club Carlson Business card, which gives 1% cash back on Staples purchases over $200. Ultimately I ended up liquidating those gift cards by paying actual bills using Evolve Money, rather than turning them back into cash.

American Express Gift Cards

I also made my first American Express gift card purchases. I really dislike the whole rigamarole of clicking through portals, checking and double-checking address information, and then having to wait with bated breath to find out whether my order was even approved. If it is, terrific, I get to wait around at home so I can sign for the cards when they finally arrive.

But, it is very lucrative.

So I began experimenting with those, and ended up earning some points and cash back that way as well, although the long turnaround time made it next-to-useless for the purposes of the competition itself.

Alaska Airlines debit card

We found out earlier this year that the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card would be retired on May 31 (3 weeks left!). While I did have the card, and was already using it casually, the news that the card would be going away really inspired me to get as much value from the card as possible while it was still around.

I had previously split my Walmart activities between money orders and bill payments more or less randomly, depending on my mood and whether I had an upcoming payment due date. But in March, I resolved to push every single dollar of Walmart bill payments through my rewards-earning debit card, and ended up earning over 17,000 Alaska miles during the month, worth $265 at Frequent Miler's fair trading price of 1.56 cents each.

Unfortunately, as I explained during the competition, virtually none of those miles ended up counting towards my final score, since for any given dollar of "bankroll" remaining at the end of the day, I'd be better off counting credit card spend instead of debit card rewards.


The March manufactured spending competition was a very rewarding experience for me: it helped me raise my game, inspired me to try out some techniques I had only read about before, and introduced me to a lot of great bloggers off the beaten path.

Now I'm really looking forward to meeting some of those bloggers and many of our readers in Charlotte, where I hope to learn a whole lot more!