CONSUMER FORUM

The ins and outs of using gift cards safely

Posted Dec. 24, 2011, at 1:13 p.m.

Oops.

There you were, about to head home on Christmas Eve, thinking you had all your shopping done. Then you remembered: Aunt Matilda, the toughest challenge on your list.

You probably made the choice millions of shoppers did: a gift card. It’s the ideal solution when you feel like you’re out of options; give a gift card and leave the decision-making to the recipient. In addition, the move gets that lucky person back into the world of shopping, which gives our battered economy a boost.

When you made your selection of a gift card, here’s hoping you did several things smart consumers do. The first is to choose a card that has not been sitting on a display rack for several weeks. Thieves can copy the account number that’s usually printed on the back of each card, wait until a card is activated and make purchases. Having a clerk scan the gift card to verify its value is wise, at the time of purchase and before its first use.

The theft scenario probably works only if the thief provided the appropriate personal identification number, usually found on the back of the card. These security numbers are covered, so smart consumers check to make sure these haven’t been tampered with.

As a thoughtful gift-giver, you may have included the sales receipt along with a copy of the terms and conditions attached to the card. These are handy in case a card is lost or stolen.

Now, a few tips for recipients. Maine’s Unclaimed Property Act contains several provisions affecting the useful life of gift obligation or stored-value cards. They can’t expire, and the issuer can’t routinely apply fees that diminish the value of the card; it’s not a matter of “use it or lose it.” Fees can be applied only on issuance of the card or when a card holder adds value to it.

That said, cards can be considered unclaimed property in Maine if they’re not used for two years (the language of the law is more precise, but two years is a good working number). The amount that becomes unclaimed property is 60 percent of the card’s value. Also, if you make a purchase and there’s less than $5 left on the card, you can ask for that small balance in cash.

You should handle cards the way you do cash. It’s wise to write down all account numbers and any toll-free numbers you may need to report the loss or theft of a card. Keep spent cards until you’re sure you won’t return an item you’ve bought; stores may insist on seeing the card before accepting a return.

Experts advise using cards sooner rather than later. If you put off using them, you’re more likely to misplace them or forget you have them. Also, it’s possible a business that honors the card today might be out of business next week.

The downside of using cards quickly is the tendency to overspend. A Consumer Reports survey in 2009 showed 65 percent of the people who received gift cards the year before spent more than the value of the card. More statistics from that survey: Forty-one percent of those with unused cards had not found anything they wanted to buy.

Electronic or digital gift cards are increasingly popular. These can get caught by your computer’s spam filter, so you may not even know you’ve received one. Watch out for too-good-to-be-true offers, which may include phony links or “free” cards, which can harvest your personal information if you access them online.

Another option is to skip the “middle man” and give cash or a check.

For tips on gift cards, visit http://www.snopes.com/fraud/sales/giftcard.asp.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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