Vanilla Visa gift cards: why won't they activate?

Near-identical complaints from readers spanning two countries

A couple days before Christmas, we ran an article listing reasons why store-specific gift cards are often a bad gift idea, and added: “if you must give a card in lieu of actual money, a prepaid debit card valid with any merchant who takes credit cards is far better than a gift card limited to one company.”

Unfortunately, we neglected to add an even more important disclaimer: if you do buy someone a prepaid debit/credit card, you might want to avoid Vanilla Visa. We say this because, in just the brief period of time that's passed since Christmas, we heard from different people from all over the country with identical complaints: their Vanilla VISA card wouldn't activate, and all attempts to fix this have proven to be a futile waste of time. These post-Christmas complaints are in addition to identical pre-Christmas ones coming from as far as Canada.

When we tried calling Vanilla Visa by following the steps listed on, we successfully managed to get in touch with a human, who promptly told us that individual customers need to call VV themselves if they have any complaints, and nobody at the company could answer our question “Approximately what percentage of Vanilla Visa customers have had such activation problems, anyway?”

Despite what Vanilla Visa told us, however, we doubt calling them will help you get your money back, since pretty much everyone who wrote us about the company said they'd already tried. Still, it's worthwhile for you to make at least one good-faith attempt to contact the company before going over their heads and contacting your state (or provincial) attorney general's anti-fraud department or the Federal Trade Commission or, better yet, both.

Card was declined

Consider this story from Gwen in Ontario, who told us on Dec. 21 that, “On Dec. 13, I purchased a Vanilla Visa Gift Card for $150 and sent it to my elderly mother in another province to finish her Xmas shopping. At the check out, the card was declined. When she called the [help number], they wouldn't help her and hung up. I called and they told me since I gifted the card they could not speak to me and when I asked if my mom would give permission to speak on her behalf, they hung up on me. My elderly mom had to call herself and every time they asked a question she didn't understand she had to hang up and call me. This went on for 2 hours at which time they told her 3 to 5 business days.”

Gwen tried complaining to the store where she'd bought the card, but that didn't help either; they said that “once the receipt is printed it's out of their hands and this is a common occurrence. There is no sign in their store that says that they are not responsible for gift cards that won't work. nor did the sales clerk inform me that if there would be problems, I would be on the hook for my money. I have an elderly mom who is so distraught, and how do I explain to her that she can't finish her shopping and I don't have the money to send her another $150?”

Down in Texas, Jackie wrote us on Dec. 27 with a very similar story: “Vanilla Visa $200 gift card won't activate. Spent three days on phone 4.5 hours total. Been hung up on, transferred and on hold most of time. When did get human was told sorry, card is non-refundable and non-exchangable and nothing they can do. Asked for a supervisor, was told there not one and if there was one they Would say the same thing. Finally got someone who said he was a supervisor said nothing can be done. I asked to speak to someone over him. He said there no one. I asked for his name and employee number he said hi would not give that information it was none of my business. So I guess they just steal your money because they give you a gift card that is invalid and you can't speak to anyone that will help you.”

David in New York told a similar tale that same day: “I was gifted two $25 cards. I attempted to find the balance by calling the customer service number. My call was continuously hung up. The online balance page would not work. I tried to use the cards and they were rejected everywhere I attempted. I do not have the purchase receipt, neither does the person who bought the cards. Be very careful when purchasing this product, as you may find yourself out of options with worthless cards as I apparently am now.”

Lori in California reached the same conclusion on Dec. 29: “Made two purchases in the same day with about $10 left on the card... The card was continuously declined. Tried their 800 number and it doesn't work. What a racket.”

Non-festive New Year's

Elsewhere in California, Wendy spent a non-festive New Year's Eve telling us her story:

I purchased a $100 gift card on Christmas Eve for a family member … the day after Christmas, it was declined. We called the number on the back to check the balance and it kept asking us to put the card number information in, we would, then the recording would say it was invalid, and hang up. Then we went to the site to check the balance. It said the card had been activated TWO MONTHS BEFORE I BOUGHT IT and the balance spent shortly after at other local stores in the same city. So I called the credit card company and they said it was the bank's problem. They transferred me to the so-called bank and it was the exact same recording from the back of the card that never let me speak to anyone. I encourage anyone who has had this problem to contact your state Attorney General's office and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).”

Glen in New Orleans had an equally unfestive New Year's Day thanks to Vanilla Visa; he told us that he received a card for Christmas, and tried to use it the next day. “DECLINED.... I then call the company thinking I need to activate it. Rep on the other end states that it's not in their records to be activated. Vanilla Visa i.e., (INCOMM) rep advises me to go to the store where I got it or my friend to get an (ELECTRONIC JOURNAL) since we didn't keep the receipt.”

But Glen said that when he visited the store where the card was bought, a manager told him they didn't offer refunds or exchanges on gift cards. “I stated to him that I just need an electronic journal to show I purchased the card. Again, the manager states he doesn't have that and can't do anything for me and walks off from me as I'm talking. I leave and call up Vanilla Visa gift card again. The rep states there is nothing she can do again. … I ask the rep if there is an email or mailing address that I could send a letter to and she politely retrieved the information I requested. I will now contact them via email and mail to see if the company will do anything about this issue. And, I must add I'm sure this isn't the first time and won't be the last time this happens... Also I feel maybe the company should be sued for stealing consumers' money, because that's what they did to my Christmas present. They stole the money, as I've never seen it or had access to it with the product I was given. We need to hold companies accountable for injustices like this.”

Yes, we do. In the imperfect system we have now, the best way to do that is to contact the relevant anti-fraud authorities in your jurisdiction … and meanwhile, spread the word on review sites like ours, in the hope that other would-be customers will stay away altogether.

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