Before you buy a gift card, consider use

  • Avoid expiration dates and fees. Many gift cards have banished expiration dates and dormancy or maintenance fees altogether. Unless there's another strong reason to choose a specific retailer or provider's card, these pitfalls can usually be avoided altogether. Terms and conditions are often printed on the card or the packaging but sometimes are included in an accompanying pamphlet. Most companies also list them on their website.
  • Know your local and national laws. Laws regarding gift cards vary greatly from state to state and can provide consumer protection. Many states do not allow gift card issuers to charge any fees, but this mostly applies to retailer-issued cards. Only a couple of states restrict fees on bank-issued cards. Under the Credit CARD Act of 2009, gift cards may not expire until at least five years after the date they are issued and monthly maintenance or dormancy fees are not permitted unless the card has been inactive for at least 12 months.
  • Purchase from reputable sources. Fraudulent sellers can lurk at online auction sites or classified-ad sites, selling cards that are either invalid or obtained fraudulently.
  • Protect your card. Register your card; several companies will not replace a lost or stolen card unless it was registered first. This can usually be done at the issuer's website. The card's PIN should be covered with a plastic scratch-off coating. You can also note the card number and PIN and keep it in a separate location. You'll need it to replace a lost or stolen card.
  • Keep the paperwork. Hold onto your receipt and give it to the recipient along with any terms and conditions that come with the card. Most companies require an original receipt in order to replace a lost or stolen card.
  • Shop online and at sister stores. Many store gift cards can also be used online where there are no lines and the selection is better. Some cards, like Gap and Pottery Barn gift cards, can also be used at sister stores (Banana Republic, Old Navy, etc., for Gap; Williams-Sonoma and West Elm for Pottery Barn).
  • Make complaints when there is a problem. Contact the issuer first. If the problem cannot be resolved with the issuer, contact the appropriate authorities, namely the Federal Trade Commission for retail cards at (877) FTC-HELP (877-382-4357) or online. Contact the Comptroller of the Currency's Customer Assistance Group at (800) 613-6743 or by email for bank-issued cards.
  • Profit from unwanted cards. Some sites let you swap cards with others, typically for a listing fee of $2. Also, try listing your card for free on Craigslist or listing it on eBay. You can also sell cards through reputable reselling websites. You lose value, but if you really want the cash, these sites will buy your gift card for 60 to 80 percent of its value, depending on the store. If profit isn't the goal, charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, are happy to accept many unused gift cards as donations. Schools and churches can use gift cards for raffles and fundraisers.

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