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Deal Hunter: Don’t let gift cards go to waste

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The dilemma used to be that Great-aunt Martha gave you a tchotchke you didn’t really need. Thoughtful? Probably. Useful? Not exactly. In 2011, you’re most likely getting gift cards you can’t or won’t use — cards that languish in drawers and on shelves until they expire or get tossed. But those cards equate to cold, hard cash — so why waste them? There are a host of Web sites that specialize in turning unused gift cards into useful currency — read on for the scoop on three of the best.

Plasticjungle.com

How it works: If you have a gift card worth between $25 and $9,500, the site will buy it and pay up to 92 percent of the verified balance. You provide card details and value, and the company makes an offer to purchase it. You choose the payment method — check, PayPal or Amazon.com credit — and ship your card on the company’s dime. The site accepts cards from more than 400 retailers, 33 of which allow for instant payment via PayPal and Amazon. The site also sells merchant gift cards at a discount of 2 to 35 percent.

Sample deal: As a test, we offered up a Target gift card worth $50. The site offered as payment an Amazon.com gift card for $47.78 or a PayPal credit or cashier’s check for $45.50. The same card was for sale on the site for $48.50.

What you’ll love: Free shipping each way and a plentiful selection of merchants. You can search for cards by retailer, card value or discount amount. Want a specific card for a set value? Sign up to get an alert when it becomes available. The site also offers electronic gift cards. The best bargains? Boston Market, J. Jill, Lucky Brand Jeans and Newport News cards for 20 percent off.

What you won’t: Getting less than a card’s full value might be tough to swallow, but it’s standard card-swapping practice.

Cardpool.com

How it works: Similar to PlasticJungle, the site buys gift cards for up to 92 percent of the balance and sells them at a discount of 2 to 35 percent. Payment for sold cards comes via check or Amazon gift card; enter the merchant name and card value on the site to see payment rates, which vary depending on whether you mail the card or provide redemption information online.

Sample deal: We used the same $50 Target card here, and CardPool offered us a check payment of $45 if we mailed the card or $42.50 if we entered the card info online. If we chose an Amazon.com gift card as payment, we got $47.25 if we mailed it or $44.63 if we took the online route. A physical $50 Target card wasn’t available, but we could get a $50 electronic version for $48.40.

What you’ll love: You’ll get free shipping and electronic gift cards here, too. You can create a wish list of your favorite merchants and get notifications when cards become available. Best bargains: an e-gift card for 1-800-Flowers.com at 30 percent off and a physical card for AMC Theatres at 20 percent off.

What you won’t: The site offers fewer payment options, and the extra step of choosing whether to mail the card or upload the information makes the process feel more complicated.

Giftcardswapping.com

How it works: More like eBay than its counterparts, this site offers a host of options: Users can buy pre-owned gift cards at a discount or new retailer and Visa gift cards at face value; sell cards to other members or directly to the site; or swap cards with other members. When swapping cards, users set their own prices and pay a $3.99 service fee; when selling cards, you pay a $1.99 service fee. The site buys cards from select merchants and pays between 60 and 75 percent of the registered balance.

Sample deal: Our $50 Target card would fetch $37.50 if we sold it directly to the site; other options were to post it for sale at a price of our choice or search the site for another card you want in exchange.

What you’ll love: This site is one of the few that lets you potentially receive the full value of your card via exchange (well, minus the $3.99 service fee).

What you won’t: Compared to other sites, the payment rates for cards sold outright is meager — as little as 50 percent of the balance for retailers not on the site’s list of preferred merchants. The available discounted gift cards were limited — we counted only 68 retailers.

THE BOTTOM LINE Money — even when it’s held captive on a plastic gift card — is still money, so use a Web site to sell or exchange cards you’re not using. You can maximize your savings by also buying gift cards at a discount. Look for sites that sell discounted cards for your favorite retailers; sign up to be notified when cards you want become available. Most sites are free to join, so sign up for a few to see which ones offer the best returns on the cards you want to offload.

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