Posted by Chuck on May 11, 2015

Published on May 11th, 2015 | by Chuck


The Art of Portal Hacking

Of Gift Card Purchases and Portals

We often try getting cashback/points from the portal for non-standard purchases, such as the purchase of gift cards or purchases with promo codes. If you didn’t get the points that you wanted, should you give up? Does that mean that such a purchase can’t earn points with any portal?

We know that it’s not so simple. FrequentMiler’s Laboratory is a great resource for seeing past reports of when the purchase of a gift card worked to trigger the portal bonus (among other things that the Laboratory deals with). Be sure to head over there to report your success/failure stories so that the resource can be kept updated.

The main reason why one portal would give the points on a purchase and another won’t is usually due to the different kinds of portals available.

  • Standard Cashback Portals Topcashback, BeFrugal, ShopAtHome, FatWallet, etc
  • Banking Portals DiscoverDeals, Chase UltimateRewards Mall, BarclayCard Reward Boost, WellsFargo Rewards and the new Amex Plenti program
  • Milage Portals  such as United and Southwest

In general, smaller merchants are more likely to pay out for gift card purchases as they haven’t worked their system well enough to separate different kinds of purchases. Alternatively, they decided to place bonuses on the purchase of gift cards so as to lock more money into their store. So long as the gift card purchase runs through the same online checkout system it will sometimes earn the portal points. This may be true even when the portal has Terms which specifically exclude gift card purchases. (With regards to e-gift cards, many merchants process them through an outside processor, such as Cashstar. This will never result in portal earnings.)

The other scenario of earning from the portal for gift card purchases would be if the portal is unintentionally paying out on purchases that they aren’t getting money from. Their system isn’t properly differentiating the different types of purchases.

Cashback Sites

The standard cashback portals run through affiliate networks and will likely process their payouts in similar ways. If one site didn’t pay out for a gift card purchase, it’s likely that the others won’t payout either.

There’s always a chance of success by trying a second portal, but it’s unlikely.

Banking Sites

In our recent Portal Interview, it was mentioned that banking portals work entirely differently than standard cashback portals. It’s likely that the bank strikes a deal directly with the merchants to offer points/cashback to their customers, whereas standard portals go through affiliate networks.

Since the banking portals are operating with a different type of system, it’s possible the portal rewards will post in differing ways, for the better or for the worse.

Interestingly, Cashbackmonitor puts DiscoverDeals together with the other cashback sites like Topcashback and separate from the credit card sites like Chase Shopping Mall. This is from the perspective of the payout which comes (simply) in the form of cashback, versus banking portals which come in the form of points. From an operating perspective, Discover is probably similar to Chase and the others.

Mileage Sites

Mileage portals seem to run differently than standard cashback and banking portals. Many mileage portals run through the Cartera affiliate network. They’re usually slower to send notification of purchases, likely due to a different operating system. See How long does it take to receive notification from a shopping portal?

It was mentioned in the Portal Interview that Cartera deals mostly with banking sites, not with standard cashback portals. It’s likely that they process things slightly differently than both banking portals and cashback portals. A third species. 

If all else fails try Ebates…

Ebates often doesn’t have the best payout rates from all portals. Topcashback, for example, seems to offer better rates than Ebates most of the time. Topcashback advertises that they give the consumer ALL of the cashback they receive from the affiliate network, while most other portals will take a cut. It’s hard to know if the Topcashback claim is actually true, but I’m inclined to believe it simply from a legal perspective. It’s hard to hear how they could get away with making a claim and not get caught in legal troubles due to deceptive advertising. Still, I’m no legal expert and I’m not discounting the possibility that it’s not entirely accurate.

Ebates, for all its faults in terms of cashback rates, is unusually accepted as a company that delivers as promised. Most people will report positive interactions with Ebates while other portals usually get mixed reviews. While I’m personally an avid Topcashback user, I’ve heard the grumblings about them and other portals.

Another good thing about Ebates is that they run nice promo/bonus rates at various merchants. Since they take a bigger cut on most purchases, they could afford to offer really great rates on a temporary basis to draw customers and to keep the excitement. If you cherry-pick your portal usage to the one offering the highest rate, you’ll find yourself using Ebates for these temporary bonus rates which they promote at various merchants.

One positive interaction I had with Ebates was when I filed a missing cashback claim. They immediately credited my account the amount that was missing, as opposed to waiting until they got the money from the merchant. Most likely, they only do this for the first claim or possibly once in a while. If someone files lots of claims, they may not be as receptive.

Ebates and Gift Cards

There’ve been a couple cases being reported of Ebates working to trigger portal payout on gift card purchases when other portals were failing. This is leading me to believe that Ebates may be worth trying out even when the other cashback portals are failing. Perhaps they process things differently than the others.

When making a purchase with a gift card or promo code which invalidates cashback/points, some affiliate networks won’t report the purchase at all to the portal, while other affiliate networks will report the purchase and track it at $0 so that it won’t earn points. Aside from the disparity between affiliate networks, it’s also quite possible that this varies by merchant as well. Some merchants may report at $0 where others won’t report at all.

In the event that the portal is informed of the purchase, it’s feasible that they’ll code it to earn points. If the portal doesn’t get notification of a purchase, there obviously will never be a payout for it.

The magic of Ebates

My suggestion is that the Ebates system is set up to recognize all purchases better than other portals. It’s therefore possible for them to occasionally have coded in the system that all purchases from Merchant XXXX will earn a certain cashback percentage. Their system doesn’t differentiate between the various purchases which tracked and just awards cashback for all of them.

Additionally, since the Ebates rates don’t usually match up with the money they’re taking in from the affiliate network, it’s possible they’re less hawk-eyed about not paying out what they don’t get in. Topcashback, on the other hand, always pays out what they get in (except when they specifically code a bonus-earn) and as such if it tracks as $0 they won’t payout.

Note that this idea that you’ll do better with Ebates is just a theory. It’s possible that the cases we had of Ebates success were just random and could happen with any single portal over another.

In any case, this idea certainly is not true across the board and many gift card purchases definitely won’t trigger cashback with Ebates any more than the other portals.

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