Do You Know Your Rights When It Comes to Gift Cards?

gift cardsIf you received any gift cards over the holidays -- or if you plan to give any in the coming year -- read on: New Federal Reserve regulations implemented after the passage of the CARD Act stipulate that any gift certificate or card has to be good for a full five years after issuance. This holds true whether the card is one issued by a store, restaurant or other retail establishment, or one issued by one of the big guns, such as Visa or American Express.

Unfortunately, though, anecdotal reports like this one seem to indicate that, at the very least, companies aren't being very proactive about training their front line employees in the new law. So what do you do if you have a perfectly legitimate gift card that is refused when you try to redeem it?As we reported last summer, the new rules go a long way toward making sure that consumers get to keep their gift card funds. In addition to the five-year expiration clause, companies selling gift cards also can't slap on maintenance fees until after a year of inactivity.

This is all great news, but it doesn't help if a badly-informed cashier refuses to let you use that gift card at the register.

Start off by asking to speak to a manager, recommends Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for watchdog group Consumer Action. "They need to talk to the manager first of all and say a gift certificate or card is not supposed to expire before five years," she says. If you let them know they're in violation of the new Federal regulations (nicely, please!), that may be enough to get them to accept the card. If that doesn't work, write down the manager's name, the date and what they told you, and take it up with that company's headquarters, Sherry says.

If this doesn't get you any satisfaction, you can try looking to the government for relief. Sherry suggests filing a complaint with your state's consumer affairs department, if you live in a state that has one.

Right now, your options at the federal level are more limited, although that's set to change this summer with the implementation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Once the Bureau begins its work in July, it will field these kinds of consumer complaints. In the meantime, they've established this webpage which directs consumers to the currently operating agencies that can help you reclaim gift-card dollars to which you're entitled.
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