On the usability of virtual pre-paid gift credit cards

Recently, I found myself in possession of a $20 “virtual” Visa gift card.  To make a long story short, I found the Wolfram Alpha iPhone app useful enough to spend $20 on it when the price dropped from $50, but then it later dropped to $2 and Mr. Wolfram decided to issue refunds to those that bought at the higher prices.  They issued this refund in the form of a pre-paid virtual Visa card.

This virtual Visa card has proven difficult to actually use in full.  Because it is just a card number in an email message, you cannot take it into a brick-and-mortar retailer.  They usually want to swipe the card, or at least take a look at the card and signature.  “I don’t really have the card, but use this card number that I wrote down for you” will likely be met with skepticism about card theft and fraud.

Given that brick-and-mortar is out, that leaves only online retailers.  Now I am certain that I have come across checkout systems online that let you pay with multiple cards but once I needed one, I could not find any.  Neither a Google search nor a question posed to the lazyweb of Twitter turned up good results.  Even Amazon, whom I think of as the most robust and mature online retailer, only allows you to pay with a single card.

I expect that given the difficulty in spending over $20 (by using the “virtual” card combined with a “real” card), most people with the $20 gift card will end up finding some item that is, say, $14.99 with a few dollars shipping and use only the gift card for payment.  The card ends up with a dollar and some change on it — not enough to really be useful.  This particular card happens to expire in three months.  I assume Wolfram has already shelled out the $20, so the card issuer ends up pocketing the leftovers.

Then it hit me.  Amazon (and other online retailers) let you use gift certificates combined with a regular credit card.  It was pretty easy to convert the virtual credit card into store credit by buying a gift certificate.  The result is that I can now use that virtual card to buy something more than $20.

It seems pretty easy in retrospect, but there was a leap in logic there that I could not initially see.  My hope for posting this is that someone else, stuck in a similar situation, performing a similar Google search to the one I failed to find results for, will run across this blog post and discover the gift certificate loophole.

Posted in: Dear Diary

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

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