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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