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Stores Offer a Better Deal than Banks on Gift Cards: Survey

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Consumers thinking of giving gift cards for the holidays may find a better bargain with store cards instead of those issued by banks and credit card companies.

Retailers that issue cards under their own names are less likely to charge fees than financial institutions that issue cards with a Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover logo, according to a survey released Monday by Bankrate.com.

The survey found that gift cards from American Express, BMO Harris, Discover Financial, Fifth Third Bank, Key Bank, JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo charge purchase fees ranging from $2.95 to $6.95.

Three-quarters of those cards, with the exception of those from American Express and Fifth Third, also charge a dormancy or maintenance fee up to $3 a month if the card goes unused for a year or more.

Only 9% of the 55 retailers in the survey charge a purchase fee and only one charges a dormancy or maintenance fee.

“The key takeaway for consumers is that they're going to get the most value from store-branded gift cards," Janna Herron, credit card analyst at Bankrate.com, said in a news release. “The benefit of general-purpose cards offered by banks and credit card companies is that they can be used anywhere, but because of the fees, you would be better off giving cash.”

The survey reviewed 63 gift cards, including eight issued by banks and credit card companies and 55 from online stores, supermarkets, restaurant chains, department stores, airlines, big-box stores and gas stations.

Overall, 95% of the cards lack an expiration date and 51% can be reloaded, the survey found. The Federal Reserve requires gift cards to stay active at least five years.

Roughly half the issuers Bankrate surveyed offer cards consumers can buy online and receive electronically, about the same percentage as last year.

Of the gift cards from financial institutions, none can be reloaded and only American Express offers an electronic version.

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