How to keep scoundrels away from your holiday gift cards

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Dec. 12, 2016, at 11:06 a.m.

Gift cards are likely the most popular holiday presents, both for givers and recipients. However, experts estimate that $1 billion in gift cards go unredeemed every year.

Retailers try lots of ways to keep sales of gift cards up: adding worth above face value and tacking on reward points are two popular methods. It’s in businesses’ best interest for consumers to redeem gift cards, because they have to carry the value of unused cards on their books, sometimes for years.

A recent caller asked Northeast CONTACT if a gift card she purchased could be misused before being given. When buying gift cards at a store, remember that crooks seeking easy money may be nearby.

It’s probably wise to avoid cards on open display racks. Some criminals jot down the numbers of unsold cards and use illegal online software to determine when cards have been activated. When the number of a card you’ve bought becomes active, the crooks begin their spending spree.

Gift card makers have added security strips to the cards; you scratch off the strip to reveal a security code or PIN. Clever thieves open packages with razors and remove the strips, disguising the tampering with their own security strips — we found several sources from online sellers.

If you pick a card off a rack and can see the security code, pick another one. Better still, buy from a store employee and watch while the employee activates the card. Get a receipt and make sure the stated value matches what you bought.

There are several options for consumers who find unused gift cards with some funds left on them. You can find ideas on getting value from unused cards at carefulcents.com/unused-gift-cards/.

Federal law bans inactivity fees, unless a card has not been used for at least one year. Any fees and expiration date of a card must be stated clearly on the card or packaging.

In Maine, state law requires that gift cards be honored indefinitely, even if they are ruled to be abandoned property. You can read about unclaimed property at the Maine State Treasurer’s website, maine.gov/treasurer/unclaimed_property/.

Many of us have been frustrated when holding a gift card to a company that’s gone out of business. Before buying, check into the corporation’s financial health. The Federal Trade Commission has more tips on buying and using gift cards at consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0182-gift-cards.

The FTC reminds consumers not to comply when a seller demands payment through a gift card from iTunes or Amazon. Check the website giftcards.com/gcgf/giftcard-scams for tips on avoiding scams.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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