by Brendan I. Koerner

I was all set to write this week's column about how digitized kitchen appliances have paved the way for a more techno-savvy America. (Suggested, admittedly lame-o hed: "The Wisdom of Microwaves".) But I chucked that idea out the window upon reading my latest Visa bill, and noticing my annual $39 rewards-program fee—The Man's yearly reminder that nothing in life is truly free, save for the ham-cube samples at my local C-Town.


Every twelve months, upon noticing that Visa has rendered me $39 poorer, I spend time perusing the rewards catalogue. Being the cheap bastard that I am, I have nowhere near enough points for those Continental vouchers, let alone the inflatable speedboat. But y'know what I can get for my piddling few thousand points? Lots and lots of low-end electronics. And though it's tempting to treat myself to a gadget on Visa, by way of my charging habits, I know deep down it's all a scam. There's gotta be a phalanx of actuaries who approve the rewards catalogue and assign all the points values, in order to stack the deck against Joe Q. Consumer. I mean, come on—16,000 points for an Initial DVD player (right) that goes for $129.99 at CVS?

Yes, I realize that I'm stunning none of y'all by revealing the Scroogeishness of credit-card companies. But I still think the way they mess with their customers' heads is worth expounding upon. The tricks of the reward-program trade, spun geekily, after the jump.

The Brand Tease The electronics rewards that cost the fewest points are invariably the low-end offerings from recognizable brand names—Sony is a particular favorite, especially its lineup of Discmen. My particular program offers this Sony PSYC MP3/ATRAC/CD player for 6,600 points. Anyone cashing in this relatively meager amount of points is profiled as an unsavvy consumer to start with, and so the rewards programs view them as easy marks for the classic "label" con—hook a consumer on inferior products branded with a recognizable name. If someone is really jonesing for a combo MP3/CD player, the smart move is to invest in a Coby or jWIN model, which offer ever bit the performance of a Sony in this space. (Um, except for the ATRAC compatibility, I guess, though this is a feature that 99.9999998 percent of the planet can live without.) Right off the bat, you'd save twenty bucks off the annual program fee—and that's assuming the person could rack up 6,600 points in a year.


Bottom of the Barrel When rewards programs buy their products in bulk, they obviously opt for the specials—particularly models that are about to be dinosaured, or those that have been remaindered due to poor sales. One of the most popular catalogue items is the 512 MB iPod Shuffle, which I believe Apple quit making almost as soon as it started. It can be yours for 10,000 points through my rewards program, and I'm sure it's a popular choice given the recognizable brand name (see above). The program's site definitely doesn't inform you that Apple is no longer supporting the player, which means that when the Shuffle's firmware invariably winks out, you're pretty much screwed. (Appeal to y'all: Has anyone tried getting their Shuffle reflashed at an Apple store? I'm curious.)

Clever Elisions Everyone and their dog wants to own an LCD TV nowadays, but they're generally out of reach for us low-enders. So when someone reads that they can cash in 13,000 points for a "Toshiba Flat-Panel Color TV", they just might start thinking that they're about to join the future to which they rightfully belong. There's even a bunch of hype-sheet jargon in catalogue description that makes you think that, yes, you're getting an LCD. ("Ah, the pleasures of state-of-the-art flat screen technology. Isn't it time for you to take advantage of great viewing from almost any angle and enjoy reduced glare for an all-around better viewing experience?") Except, um, you're just getting a slightly advanced tube model that Amazon is selling for $114.40. And, oh yeah, its diagonal measures a not-so-whopping 14-inches. Enjoy, sucker.

Make Research Impossible This is the part that really irks me: rewards programs don't cite specific model numbers, so you can't do any independent research on whether you're getting a quality gadget, or just something that fell off a truck outside a Visa calling center. (The latter being far more common than the former.) So an HP printer is advertised only as "Hewlett Packard All-in-One Color Printer", and a laughably outmoded Brother printer/scanner combo is breathlessly hyped as "Brother 5-in-1 Color Multi-function Center". (Tagline from the catalogue: "Space saver!") I still haven't figured out exactly which HP unit my credit card is peddling, but it's gotta be a rip-off given that its print resolution is cited as 4800 x 1200 dpi. A printer with those modest gifts goes for well under $150 at Newegg; at 25,000 points in my reward catalogue, that's gotta be the biggest rip-off out there.

My bottom line on rewards programs is this: if you truly feel an irresistible compulsion to spend your hard-earned points on electronics, don't go for any of the options. The wisest choice is to instead opt for one of the Best Buy or Circuit City gift cards that are catalogue staples, and sort through the bargain bins. A $50 Best Buy card costs 4,000 points in my program—several thousand points less than that Discman that can be had for $50 (or less at the local mall). Face it, the catalogue is just trying to tease you with all them pretty pictures of craptacular gear. Better to take the faux money, run, and think seriously about whether you want to keep on forking over $39 every year. Rewards programs may be great if you're putting your kid's college tuition on your Visa; much less so if your biggest purchase since 1999 was the the complete first season of She Spies.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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