More Tips on Gift Cards

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After our first story ran, a reader shared his experience with us — and offered some valuable advice.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, we published an article examining the problems consumers run into with gift cards. Retailers sold an estimated $17 billion worth of them over the holiday season. Yet, roughly 5% of the recipients will never redeem them, says Comdata, a leading provider of gift cards. Why? Some absent-minded consumers lose them, let them expire or watch in horror as the store in question chips away at their value with monthly dormancy fees that can be as high as $2.50.

Should you come across an old gift card, don't throw it away. In our article, we pointed out that in many cases you can still redeem them for their full value. A number of states, including California, Connecticut and Maine, have passed laws that protect consumers by either not allowing cards to expire or extending the expiration dates.

We also mentioned that most states have unclaimed-property laws on their books dictating that retailers must hand over the proceeds of gift cards to their state treasurer if the value isn't redeemed within a certain amount of time. Consumers must then file a claim with the state to have their property returned. As one might imagine, it can take some time before the money is returned to the consumer. It is the government, after all.

After we published that story, a reader alerted us to another, faster strategy: contacting the local Better Business Bureau. After reading our story, Lawrence Rincon told us, he was inspired to revive his efforts to redeem an expired gift card from online retailer

In May 2002, Rincon received an gift card worth $100. He emailed Amazon's customer service and was told that his card was valid for one year, but that the expiration date could be extended on request. Twelve months later, after not using the card, Rincon decided to exercise his right to extend the card's expiration date. But Amazon said it had changed its policy — and that his card was now worthless. "As someone who works in customer service, I was very surprised with Amazon's dogmatic actions and form responses," he wrote in his email to us.

Rincon decided to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Within a few days, he received an email from a member of Amazon's executive customer relations team acknowledging the BBB complaint. The email said that, since Rincon was "a valued customer," Amazon planned to send him a new gift certificate via email within the next two to three business days.

Sheila Atkins, a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, says she wasn't surprised to hear that and Rincon settled their dispute. Customer-service departments can receive an overwhelming number of complaints on a daily basis, Atkins says. A complaint flagged by a respected organization, such as the BBB, is often plucked from the pile and dealt with in a timely fashion. "They know that if a customer contacted the Better Business Bureau, something has slipped on their end and they will want to take care of it," she says.

"I'm sorry that we weren't able to (initially) do a better job for the customer, but it sounds like the issue has been resolved," says an Amazon spokeswoman. Amazon gift cards issued after July 1, 2002, are now valid for two years. The company encourages its customers to use them before they expire.

Like filing a claim with your state, making a complaint with the BBB is free. You can either mail a letter to your local BBB office or visit its Web site and fill out the online form. The nonprofit group will then contact the company in question and forward your concerns. If the consumer isn't satisfied with the results, he or she can request the case go to arbitration, and can ask an advocate from the local BBB to represent him or her.

The one thing consumers should remember is that the BBB isn't a governing entity. A complaint may fall on deaf ears, and the company is under no obligation to respond. So if you find that you aren't making headway, you may need to go back to our initial advice and contact your state attorney general or local comptroller's office. But whatever you do, don't give up without a fight.