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Gift Cards: Use Them While They Last

Retailers expect Americans to give nearly $25 billion worth of gift cards this holiday season. If you get one, use it before it loses its value.

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Great to Give, Get Gift Cards, but Don't Let Them Linger
RALEIGH, N.C. — One recent survey reported that 80 percent of people who were asked said they planned to buy someone a gift card this holiday season. The National Retail Federation said it was expecting people to plunk down nearly $25 billion for gift cards—up from $18 billion last Christmas season.

And that’s just for gift cards from stores. That doesn't count restaurants, various kinds of services and "universal" cards sold by banks.

Overall, business analysts say, sales of cards of all kinds should top $80 billion for the year.

Selling the cards is only half of the deal, however. Recipients have to use them.

If you get a card, use it! The industry estimates that about 10 percent of cards sold this year will never be used. Some cards have expiration dates. And even if your gift card does not expire, it’s value may be leaking away right in your pocket.

Many cards come with restrictions and fees. One card, for example, charges $2 a month after 12 months. After a year, another card charges a $4.95 monthly fee until the value of the card reaches zero. One card even charged a $25 "maintenance fee" every six months!

Those fees are most common with gift cards bought at a mall or through a bank.

Leave a gift card in your wallet long enough, and it can actually end up in the state's "abandoned" property account. While rules vary from state to state, North Carolina requires retailers to turn over unused gift card dollars, sometimes after only two or three years.

Keep in mind, too, that losing cards or having them stolen while you hang onto them is like losing money. Stores often will not replace them.

The federal government regulates gift cards sold by nationally insured banks, and proposed regulations would require that kind of gift card to include the expiration date, customer-service contact information, and a list of fees right on the cards.
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 Credits

Monica Laliberte, Reporter
David McCorkle, Photographer
Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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