One of the easiest ways to give gifts this time of year is to slip a gift card into an envelope and call it a day. The cards can be bought just about anywhere, even at 7-Eleven. And recipients get to spend someone else's money however they want. What a deal.

But gift cards can also be a major headache. They often have expiration dates, dormancy fees and maintenance costs that can turn a $50 gift card into $35 gift card or even $0 gift card if the recipient does not know how to spend it wisely.

Here comes the county's Consumer Affairs Office to the rescue. The agency recently issued its third annual gift-card study -- some 14 pages of tips for using the cards, including recommendations regarding the best and warnings about the worst.

The county studied 30 cards and recommended 18 that do not have expiration dates or fees for going unused. They are: Best Buy, Borders, Circuit City, Costco, Gap, Home Depot, JC Penney, Lowe's, McDonald's, Nordstom, Old Navy, PetSmart, Sam's Club, Sears, Sports Authority, Starbucks, Target and Wal-Mart.

Nine of the 30 cards have expiration dates, and five do not disclose the restrictions. Those five are Blockbuster, KB Toys, Kmart, Red Lobster and Toys R Us.

The county is telling consumers to pay special attention to bank-issued gift cards. While they allow recipients to spend the money almost anywhere, all impose processing or purchases charges ranging from $2.50 to $9.95.

Four of the bank cards reviewed -- American Express, Simon Mall Visa, Discover and iCard Visa -- impose monthly maintenance fees of $2 to $4.95.

For information about the study, call 240-777-3636 or visit

Local Business Awards

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce last night awarded its highest honor -- Business Leader of the Year -- to Bill Couper, president of Bank of America Greater Washington.

The chamber specifically cited Couper's commitment to rebuilding the area's United Way chapter. The bank contributed $2.6 million to state nonprofit agencies this year, along with $125,000 to the United Way.

The A. Mario Loiederman Emeritus Business Leader award went to John Derrick, former president of Pepco. The chamber gave him the award to highlight his many years serving the county's business community.

Gaithersburg biotech firm MedImmune Inc. won the Corporate Achievement award in honor of the company's continuing growth and strong financial performance.

Jonathan Wilber, president of Bethesda-based Master Key Consulting, took home the Emerging Business of the Year award, while Jack Hollerbach, chief executive of Harvest Bank of Maryland, which serves regional biotech firms, was named Small Business Leader of the Year.

"These are businesses and individuals that impact not only the business environment but the entire shape of our community" said Rich Parsons, the chamber's chief executive. "These businesses and individuals have made long-lasting contributions to the quality of life that we enjoy every day in Montgomery County."

A Green-Thumb Challenge

Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, a new business and publication in the area, is issuing a challenge: Try to stump her.

She'll be at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton on Dec. 17 to hold a "stump the editor" session. Drop by to see if you can outsmart her on garden trivia. She'll also give tips on gardening, including plant advice.

You can find her from 5:30 to 9 p.m. in the main visitors center.

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