In this season of giving, one item stands out as a convenient present that doesn’t require a package or bow: the gift card. A shopper can choose from cards for coffee, food, video games, music and more.
Gift cards are one of the most popular items to give and receive for the holidays. Last year, gift givers spent an average of $173 on gift cards, according to the National Retail Federation. A gift card can be a wonderful expression of thoughtfulness; however, consumers need to choose wisely.
Since January, the Consumer Protection Section of my office has received about 50 complaints concerning gift cards. The plastic promise isn’t much of a gift if the business that issued the card closes before the recipient can redeem it — yet that is one of the common complaints. When RadioShack filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, it planned to stop honoring existing gift cards. To help protect consumers, my office worked with other state attorneys general, and now consumers with unused Radio Shack gift card balances can seek refunds at www.OldRadioShackGiftCards.com.
To make sure that you’re giving a card that will bring joy and not frustration:
Review gift-card complaints. Before buying a certain gift card, find information about the company on my office’s website, www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov, on the website of the Better Business Bureau, or by doing an online search for information. (Type in the name of the card or the company and words such as reviews or complaints.)
Look for fees that will reduce the card’s value.
Check expiration dates. If there is no expiration date printed on the card, get written information about the expiration date when you buy the card.
Examine the return policy. In some cases, gift cards can’t be returned. Sellers are required to clearly disclose their return policies, so make sure you understand them.
Know your rights. Gift cards are protected under state and federal law. Under Ohio law, gift cards, generally, can’t expire for at least two years. Under federal law, many gift cards must last at least five years. There are, however, a number of exceptions related to gift-card laws, especially for gift cards that are good at multiple locations, such as bank-issued gift cards or gift cards to malls. Check with my office or the Federal Trade Commission if you have questions.
Understand the limitations of promotional gift cards. During the holidays, sellers may offer deals such as “Buy a $100 gift card and get a $20 gift card free.” While the $100 gift card generally would be subject to minimum expiration periods, the $20 promotional card could expire at any time.
Don’t buy altered cards. Don’t buy a gift card that shows any sign of damage, especially the PIN number being scratched off on the back, which could be an indication that a scammer has compromised it. Also, when buying a gift card at a store, watch carefully as the clerk enters the value.
Be careful when buying cards from third parties. Some third parties resell gift cards at a discount, but the offers may be scams. Some cards may not contain the promised value. Also, before you buy a gift card from a third-party website to use at a local business, check with the business to make sure it will honor gift cards sold by that website.
Be skeptical about “free” gift cards. If you receive notice that you’ve won a free gift card, beware. Some con artists use claims of “free gift cards” as bait to get consumers to click on malicious links in emails or text messages, or as a trick to get consumers to reveal their personal information.
If you find a gift card in your stocking, try to use it as soon as possible. The sooner you use a gift card the less likely it is that you will have a problem redeeming its value. If you do have trouble, or suspect a gift-card scam or unfair practices at any time of year, contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515 or www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.
Mike DeWine is the Ohio Attorney General.