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A gift card can be the perfect gift. Except when it’s not.

Let’s say your generous out-of-town aunt sends you a $100 gift card for your birthday good at Cinemark. Too bad the theater chain in your neighborhood is an AMC theater.

Or maybe your clueless cousin bought you a $50 card to PetSmart, forgetting your Doberman, Cuddles, had passed away.

Instead of tossing those rejects in a junk drawer or re-gifting them, a growing number of consumers are using online gift card exchanges to trade them for cash. At the same time, savvy shoppers are picking up those castoffs at a discount — in essence as a way to get markdowns on goods they buy.

An estimated $500 million to $700 million worth of gift cards went unused last year, according to CEB TowerGroup in Arlington, Virginia. That’s down from close to $7 billion in 2008 before regulators eliminated numerous junk fees and extended expiration dates to a minimum of five years.

“I use exchanges primarily to buy cards because I find it’s an easy way to save,” said Kyle Taylor, founder of the Penny Hoarder in St. Petersburg, Florida, a blog dedicated to offbeat ways to make and save money. “I’m saving even before using any coupons.”

Taylor has used exchanges to sell a couple of unwanted cards and to buy around 50 of them over the last few years.

“I bought a home last year and needed a washer, dryer and fridge,” he said. “I bought Lowe’s cards and stacked them with coupons. I was able to save a ton.”

Taylor said he’s never had any problems using exchanges or been dissatisfied.

Still, there are risks, so it helps to know how the exchanges work before plunging in.

First, sellers shouldn’t expect to get paid full price.

Prices are based on supply and demand, and exchanges take a cut. Sellers type in the card number, PIN and value, send in the card and get paid through PayPal, or by check, direct deposit or another gift card. Other sites list cards from sellers who get paid only if the card is sold.

Cards from big-name retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot will fetch the most cash, up to 95 percent of the balance, Taylor said. Cards from lesser known, regional stores might be worth only 70 percent to 80 percent of their value.

On the flip side, buyers will find the biggest bargains on cards from smaller, less popular stores.

At Cardcash.com, for example, American Eagle Outfitters gift cards were recently going for 30 percent off (a $200 card was selling for $140), while Best Buy cards were being marked down only 2 percent to 4 percent.

Taylor recommends using a listings aggregator, such as GiftCardGranny.com, which makes it easy to compare offerings from numerous exchanges. Gift Card Granny gets paid for referrals and “has a history of presenting reputable sites,” he said.

He also recommends that buyers check the balance on a card as soon as they receive it.

Reputable sites will verify the balance of gift cards before selling them and offer a money-back guarantee or replacement if the amount isn’t as promised, according to the Retail Gift Card Association in Washington, D.C. In addition, the best sites won’t take long to pay sellers and they offer tracking to help protect sellers if payments are lost.

Timm Walsh, chairman of the association, said potential problems with gift card exchanges are similar to risks associated with other second-hand markets.

“When you buy something used, you hope when you go to plug it in, it works,” Walsh said.

“In a lot of cases, consumers don’t understand that if I sell a card, I still have the keys to take the account and PIN and still redeem it before the person who bought it redeems it.”

For more tips on using gift card exchanges, visit www.thergca.org

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