Mailing credit cardholders a $15 gift card may be less costly than sending them an $8.25 check, at least in terms of an issuer's reputation.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. still stands by its past use of such checks, but it has switched to using gift cards as an incentive to purchase fraud-protection programs.
Consumer advocates have long complained about what they call "live-check" solicitations, which inform cardholders — in small type — that by depositing the checks, they would be enrolling in programs, with the annual fee billed directly to their account. The checks are usually for small amounts; some from JPMorgan Chase were worth $8.25.
In 2006 the New York company and its third-party marketer, Trilegiant Corp., settled a lawsuit over the practice brought by 16 state attorneys general for $14.5 million.
Some consumer advocates expressed reservations about the use of gift cards but called them an improvement over the checks.
Last month JPMorgan Chase sent cardholders $15 gift cards from Circuit City Stores Inc. Activating them required cardholders to call a toll-free number and sign up for a fraud detection program, with a monthly fee of $7.99.
Also last month, Wells Fargo & Co. inserted in its bills an offer for a roadside assistance program, with an annual fee of $149.99, from Trilegiant, a unit of the Norwalk, Conn., marketing company Affinion Group Inc. Those who sign up for the program get a $40 gift card from Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
(Affinion, which is majority owned by Apollo Management LP, had sent out checks on behalf of JPMorgan Chase and Barclays PLC as recently as February.)
Tanya Madison, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase's card division, said this month that it had discontinued check solicitations. The Circuit City card is the only incentive it is offering for the Chase Fraud Detector program.
Gift cards "reinforce clear and complete messaging," she said.
"They listen to the recording, and if they want what's being offered by this incentive, then they have to accept it by pressing a button," she said, and the disclosures are repeated several times.
JPMorgan Chase's check solicitations "also provided very clear and complete disclosures," she said.
The Circuit City gift cards were mailed with a full-page letter, and a sticker on the card said it "MUST be activated prior to use."
"By activating this card, you will be purchasing a membership in Chase Fraud Detector for $7.99 per month," the sticker says. Those who call the number are told to enter the card number "to activate your Circuit City gift card and purchase Chase Fraud Detector."
Wells' application for the roadside assistance includes the phrase "$40 in Gift Cards" and the Wal-Mart logo on the front. On the back of the application, next to a lengthy disclosure about the program, is an area for customers to fill in their account number and other information.
James Hart, a spokesman for Affinion, wrote in an e-mail that those who send in the application receive "an enrollment kit, which requires them to fill out additional forms" before they get the gift card. "There is absolutely no way that a consumer can receive a gift card from us without willingly, mindfully selecting to receive it."
Affinion has received "less than 1 complaint for every 10 million" gift card offers, he wrote, and does "a small fraction of the industry's gift card incentive programs."
Jay Lawrence, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, said in a written response to American Banker's questions that the San Francisco company had "recently tested a special offer," which had been completed. "We do not anticipate extending or re-starting the offer," but customers may still respond to the original mailing.
"The offer was clearly spelled out in the mailing," he said.
Criticisms of check marketing had no influence on Wells' decision to use gift cards, he said.
Despite the change at JPMorgan Chase, Mr. Hart said, "there is no evidence … that banks are dropping the use of live checks and substituting the use of gift cards, or increasing the use of gift cards to replace live checks."
Instead, the "increasing acceptance of gift cards" led to "a natural response by the marketing industry to use the cards," he said.
Prentiss Cox, a former Minnesota assistant attorney general and now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, called the gift card solicitations "an improvement on the problem" of checks that target "inattentive" cardholders.
The sticker on the JPMorgan Chase gift card "is better than any disclosure I've seen in saying, 'By activating this card, you're purchasing a membership,' " he said.
Gail Hillebrand, a senior attorney in the San Francisco office of Consumers Union, said, "It's helpful that the sticker is on the front" of the Circuit City gift card, and that the Wal-Mart offer requires consumers to fill out and mail an application to enroll in the roadside assistance program.
Still, "if these products are worth having, it should be possible to sell them directly" without incentives like gift cards, Ms. Hillebrand noted.