Did Starbucks steal $167 from this woman?

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When Marianne Finnigan’s Starbucks cards are frozen, the fast-food retailer wipes out her store credit. Can it do that?

Question: I have been a Starbucks gold card member since 2008. I keep a large balance on my card. Recently, I purchased four discount Starbucks gift cards from Raise.com — $25 cards for $21 each.

I transferred their balances to my gold card and used the card for three days afterward. On the fourth day, when I pulled up to the drive-thru, I was told my card was frozen. I called Starbucks and was told their fraud department had questions about the source of some of my funds.

I called Raise and notified them of the problem. They found the bad card and gave me my money back on that one card. I called Starbucks and told them which card was bad. They still refused to unfreeze my card and told me I am out all the money.

Before I put the Raise cards on there, I had over $167 on the card. They can just keep my money? I told them which card was the problem and asked them to remove those funds and free up the rest of my card, but they refused. They said it was in the fine print.

I can’t believe they can keep $167 and I have no recourse. Can you help me? I have receipts and paperwork to back me up. — Marianne Finnigan, Tampa

Answer: Starbucks can’t just help itself to your money. But is it really your money?

Maybe, maybe not.

This isn’t the first Raise.com Starbucks case to cross my desk. The last one ended up with a polite but firm denial from Starbucks.

When you buy a card, you’re essentially getting store credit from Starbucks, but it’s governed by the fast-food company’s own terms and conditions.

I’m sure the lawyers made them do this, but here’s the line that allows Starbucks to keep your money: “We may suspend or terminate this agreement and revoke or limit any or all of the rights and privileges granted to you at any time without notice or liability.”

Now, in fairness to Starbucks, it says if it finds termination “without cause” it will refund or issue store credits equal to the balance held in your Starbucks card account less any amounts that you may owe the company.

The key phrase here is “without cause.”

Put differently, if Starbucks believes that you intentionally tried to game the system with a fraudulent card, it will take all of your money. Worse, you can’t sue them to get your money back — there’s an arbitration clause that keeps your lawyer out. How clever.

In reviewing your correspondence with Starbucks, I thought you had a solid case. Your only “crime,” it appears, was buying a discounted gift card through Raise.com. You weren’t trying to game the system, at least not from my perspective.

I contacted Starbucks on your behalf. After several requests to comment, it finally responded with a denial.

“While I’m not at liberty to divulge about the specifics of this customer’s individual account with you, I can assure you that our customer care team has taken her claims seriously, have investigated the matter and responded to the customer directly about this,” a representative said.

Perhaps I had missed some correspondence between Starbucks and you, so I circled back to find out if the company had indeed “responded to the customer directly about this.” Apparently not.

The lesson seems clear: Don’t buy Starbucks gift cards from a third party like Raise.com. Better yet, don’t buy them at all. You’re just giving the company an interest-free loan. And in the end, it can do whatever it wants with your money — even when it’s wrong.

Should Starbucks have confiscated all of Marianne Finnigan's credit?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    What isn’t true? That the RUDE guy was holding up a massive line to have them ring up each coffee as a separate transaction?

    Look, if Starbucks is going to reward that behavior, they are going to make a lot of other customers mad.

    We’re not talking 2 coffees. We’re talking 10, on a work day, at rush. The line was out the door while this clown was racking up his “STARS”

  • Benjamin Barnett

    Were you able to do all that before her ice cream melted?

  • RonBonner

    Excuse me William but I fail to see how my comment was not civil. The person I responded to has been posting some pretty vile remarks about others on some other forums and I honestly believe those comments may have been the cause of this persons posting issues.

  • PsyGuy

    His stars (and my stars) are more important to him and me than your coffee rush. I knew one guy who tried to have the barista ring up each separate add-on as a separate transaction (making a double shot, soy, hazelnut latte a 4 transaction drink). What that store manager should of done, was open up another line, and alternate the express line orders with his orders.

  • Raven_Altosk

    What Starbucks should do is count the number of DRINKS not transactions. It’s the same amount and more efficient.

  • bodega3

    Actually, the owner of the ice cream store where she tried to use the card is also a friend of ours, and they comped her the cone. Love small towns and knowing everyone!

  • bodega3


  • bodega3

    Good to know.

  • bodega3

    Yes, I bought a sheet of cards from Costco and gave them as a gift and got them below value.

  • PsyGuy

    No they shouldn’t it would cost them more. Companies generally don’t enact policies and reward policies at that, which will cost them more money or eat into revenue.

  • Emanuel Levy

    I agree it should be one star per item not per purchase. Also as I said I am someone who will structure my purchase for the most amount of stars but NOT when people are behind me and I WOULD never have a separate add-on done as a seperate transaction for a star.

  • jsibelius

    I would guess she settled with Starbucks on the condition that she not discuss it with the media. FWIW, it doesn’t matter what the terms and conditions of a contract say if the terms are contrary to the law. Don’t most states have something on the books regarding gift cards/certificates? They definitely have laws regarding debit accounts. If you give a company cash, they can’t just keep it without giving you something in return. In the case of fraud, they can’t just keep everything, regardless of the amount of the fraud. That’s where small claims comes in handy.

  • Mike Z

    I’m sorry but retailers routinely offer cars for a certain amount for less than face value. one can even go into a COSTCO several times per year and get gift cards for 20% off face value. (example, $50 in build a bear gift cards for $40)
    I simply do not know how the company can keep her money legally. Yeah, they may be able to suspend the card or freeze it, but wouldn’t they then have to refund her the balance remaining on the card?

  • Mike Z

    Your premise in invalid. retailers of all sorts sell cards through grocers, and retailers like Walmart and in return the grocers give the people rewards toward merchandise or gasiline discounts. The merchant is getting a percentage in commission from the gift card company to sell their cards. So in reality, starbucks may be giving someone $25 in merchandise for $21.
    As an example, a local grocery chain routinely offers $.20 off per gallon for every $50 in gift cards purchased. I’ve bought hundreds in gift cards before if I planned to make a large purchase. But, every $.20 off in gas helps me at a fill up to the tune of almost $5. So what if I was to keep buying cards then selling them for $3 less? i am still saving $2 per fill up from every card and I am also saving the next person $3 per card.