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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Lost in Starbucks
Coffee giant says 'unredeemed' value ceases to exist
Dave Everitt, with the lost cards: 'Wait a minute.'
Dave Everitt, with the lost cards: 'Wait a minute.'

Dave Everitt just wanted to do a good deed. One of the drivers at Union Cab, where Everitt works as a cashier, turned in two Starbucks cards someone left in her cab. Hoping to find the rightful owner, he called the 800 number on the back of the card.

The person he spoke to said neither card was registered, so it was not possible to trace the owner. (Starbucks card holders can register by phone or Internet to protect their cards against loss or theft, as well as to receive 'special benefits and exclusive offers.') And then, Everitt was told, the cards were nullified.

'Wait a minute,' Everitt objected. 'You're just keeping the money.' He says the person denied this, as did others he spoke to in the Starbucks chain.

But to Everitt, this conclusion is inescapable: Where else would the money go? He argued that the driver who found the cards should get to use them, but Starbucks would not go along. That sticks in his craw:

'Here you're the Wal-Mart of coffee in the world, a billion-dollar industry, and you're afraid some cab driver is going to get a free cup of coffee on your dime?'

Rob Eiseman, a Chicago-based PR exec who fielded a request to Starbucks for comment, explains the company's policy regarding reported lost cards: 'If unregistered, as is the case with most of these cards, they close the account to prevent the possibility of fraud.'

Wait a minute. How is letting a finder be a keeper fraud? Eiseman likens the situation to a lost credit card. But isn't that a wee bit different? Isn't finding a card with value on it more like finding cash in the street?

Eiseman eventually concedes that using an unregistered lost card is 'not officially fraud.' But neither is it Starbucks policy: 'The company is going to cancel the card so no one else can use it.'

But why should Starbucks get to keep the value of these cards, as opposed to the person who found them?

That question got bounced up to Brandon Borrman, a spokesman for Starbucks in Seattle, who explains the 'accounting minutia' that underlies the company's policy. He says the company may not legally transfer ownership of found cards to another person. Nor can it record the unused value of the cards as revenue. 'It remains as an unclaimed balance,' he says.

Wait a minute. If Starbucks takes money for a card that isn't used, isn't Starbucks the richer for it? No, he insists: 'The money exists on paper in an unredeemed value column.' For a more precise explanation, he suggests consulting an accountant: 'My understanding of it only goes so far.'

Actually, there is a larger political dimension to this little tale. State Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) wants to make companies that sell gift cards in Wisconsin impose a one-year expiration date, and return 80% of the unused value to the state. Kessler, who says the bill is now in drafting, calls gift cards a 'fraud' on consumers.

'Why don't you give somebody a check?' he asks. 'Give them cash.'

Kessler cites a national statistic that 19% of gift card value is never claimed. Best Buy alone pocketed $43 million from unused cards last year.

Still, Kessler admits the reaction has been mainly negative, and he doesn't expect his bill to pass. But he predicts it will be a boon to the lobbyists hired to oppose it. And he hopes it will 'strengthen the hand' of Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee), who's drafting legislation to prevent companies from attaching expiration dates and service fees to their cards ' another means to keep companies from getting money for nothing.

Meanwhile, Starbucks' Card Services confirms that one of the cards found by Union Cab was canceled without any of its $20 value being used. But, as of press time, the other card remains active ' an oversight, no doubt ' with a balance of $4.43. That cab driver might get her cup of coffee after all.

Picking up the speed

It was barely past 8:30 p.m. on primary election night and Michael Schumacher, a Madison aldermanic candidate in Dist. 18, was at Ray Allen's party, accepting congratulations. 'I won by 170 votes' over second-place finisher Jon Becker, he was saying, a full hour before the final results were known to TV viewers.

Another party guest announced that Mark Deadman had come in a few votes ahead of Satya Rhodes-Conway in Dist. 12 ' again, long before anyone tracking the returns by computer or TV learned of this result.

Schumacher says he and two helpers got the numbers from the polling places minutes after the polls closed. (He apparently made a math error, as his actual margin of victory was 180 votes.) He's not sure why it takes so long for these numbers to be posted, but suspects 'bureaucracy' ' one person reporting to another, then another.

He's right, sort of. According to Dane County Clerk Bob Ohlsen, most of the 73 Dane County polling places outside of Madison modem in their results. (About 15 poll places phone them in.) But workers from Madison's 76 poll places physically transport the 'memory packs' from vote counters to the City-County Building. The data from these packs is entered into the system and posted online, then broadcast by media based on the percentage of wards reporting.

Last week, Ohlsen says, the final results were entered at 9:40 p.m. In high-turnout elections where poll workers need more time to accommodate crowds or enter absentee ballots, it's been as late as 11:30 p.m.

This system explains why, early in the night, TV viewers see 100% returns for races in Fitchburg and minuscule returns in Madison. And it means countywide totals are initially weighted more to outlying areas (so don't count out narrowly trailing wacky libs too soon).

Ohlsen is unaware of any push to improve the speed with which Madison reports, citing concerns about logistics (lack of designated phone lines) and cost (for the modems). Overall, he says, the system is much faster now that no one is counting votes by hand or driving them in from the county's hinterlands.

Nobody's prefect

Ray Allen's campaign finally got it right ' almost. The Madison mayoral challenger's last campaign finance report, filed with the city clerk's office in mid-February, had a couple of contributions above $100 that did not include the donor's occupation, as required. Deb Schmidt of the city clerk's office noticed this, but decided to let it slide.

The Allen campaign's first report, filed last year, had to be amended twice to correct errors. His next filing, early this year, incorrectly recorded his cash balance as 'Incurred obligations' and had dozens of donations dated '1/8/07' on a report for activity through the end of 2006.

Campaign treasurer Semmi Pasha mistakenly put down the date of deposit rather than receipt; an amended filing requested by Schmidt corrects this. But it still lists the two major activity categories as 'Reciepts' and 'Disbursments,' as does the most recent report.

The campaign of incumbent mayor Dave Cieslewicz, meanwhile, had to resubmit his January filing after it noticed that a $200 contribution from a committee was mistakenly ascribed to an individual.

He works hard for the money

By the way, Allen's filings show no payments to Pasha, who for months seems to have almost single-handedly run his campaign. Pasha, who also works for Allen's Madison Times newspaper, says he gets paid through his consulting firm, Real Analysis. But the filings list just two payments to Real Analysis, of $1,350 each, since the campaign began.

Allen says Pasha has a payment schedule that extends 'over the course of the election.' Besides, Allen adds, 'he volunteers.' And how.

Snow in winter in Wisconsin ' Kill the earth, make it stop

Letter to the editor in the Wisconsin State Journal: 'I had just finished clearing six inches of snow on Saturday when I learned much more was predicted for later that day and Sunday. I was wondering which of the candidates in the upcoming elections are pro-global warming, because they've got my vote.'

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