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Use those gift cards now

Gift card

If you received gift cards this holiday season, you should get out and use them up now, before they get buried in a drawer, lose value, or expire.

Federal rules for merchant and bank issued gift cards mean they can't expire within five years after they're issued, or in the case of reloadable gift cards, within five years after money was last added. But the rules don't apply to reloadable cards that aren't labeled or marketed as gift cards, including those awarded through loyalty, rebate, or promotional programs. Nor do the federal regulations apply to discount vouchers from such sites as Groupon or Living Social.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supports a bill in Congress that prohibits expiration dates and non-use fees and prevents companies that have filed for bankruptcy from selling gift cards or refusing to honor those they've sold.

But in the meantime, here's what else to keep in mind about your gift cards:

You might lose or forget about them: Using them now means you won't have to worry about losing them later.

You may be charged inactivity fees: Bank-issued cards are convenient because you can use them almost anywhere, but they come with fees. For example, you could be charged a monthly fee after 12 months of inactivity. Charity gift cards can also come with fees for transactions, or to transfer funds. Retail store cards usually have few or no fees.

The retailer could go bankrupt: When Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy reorganization several years ago, an estimated $20 million in gift cards and certificates were unredeemed. Consumers with Sharper Image gift cards were first told that the retailer was no longer accepting its cards, then that it would accept the cards if customers spent twice the cards’ value, and finally that it was closing its stores altogether. Even if a retailer continues honoring its gift cards during bankruptcy reorganization or liquidation, there could be fewer places to redeem them or less time to do so.

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Copyright © 2009-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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