What You Need to Know About Gift Cards and the Law

Gift cards are the quintessential easy gift idea. Everybody uses them, and they avoid questions like “Will this fit her?” or “Will he like this?” Gift cards and gift certificates are available from all sorts of stores, ranging from the mundane like grocery stores and drug stores to more specialized businesses like spas and travel agencies. No matter where you purchase or receive a card from, however, it is important to protect yourself as a consumer and be familiar with your rights surrounding gift card use. After all, these are used as form of currency and ought to be treated as frugally as one would treat cash.

What can I do with a gift card I don’t want?

There are a lot of options for putting gift cards you don’t want to good use. There are websites that exist for the sole purpose of buying and selling gift cards. Gift Card Granny, for example, will buy your card for 60%-80% of its value. You can also sell your card on a website like Craigslist or eBay. Other websites like Gift Card Swapping allow you to trade your gift card for one you’ll actually use.

If you’re feeling charitable, many nonprofits, including local schools and churches, will accept gift cards as donations. Gift cards are also great for re-gifting. There’s no reason to let any gift card sit around and be forgotten!

Can my gift card expire? Can I lose the balance on my gift card?

The short answer: It depends on what state you live in.

The long answer: It depends on what state you live in, and the extent to which your state is complying with federal law.

In 2009, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act [gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-111publ24/pdf/PLAW-111publ24.pdf] passed into federal law. The act covers a lot of ground surrounding the protection of credit cardholders, but it also created some federal standards for gift card issuers that are intended to protect consumers. These include requiring that cards, with a few exceptions, expire no less than five years after issuance and that dormancy fees can only be charged after one year of inactivity and only if these fees are fully disclosed to consumers. According to the CARD Act, stores are allowed to begin charging dormancy fees – meaning, a charge to keep the card active when it has not been used after a certain amount of time – after one year of inactivity, and no more than one charge per month. Eventually, these charges may deplete the value of the card. This is an important way stores and major card issuers like American Express make money. However, some states have introduced additional, and sometimes contradictory, legislation surrounding gift card law.

For example, New York law allows stores to begin charging monthly dormancy fees after just one year of inactivity. It is also legal for stores to charge a replacement fee for lost cards, and they do not require stores to give cash back for small balances on cards. …