Consumer Alert: Gift card traps

NATIONAL (CONSUMER REPORTS) - If you're planning to buy a gift card for someone on your list this holiday season, a new Consumer Reports survey shows nearly two-thirds of us are planning to give gift cards this year.

But that same survey found 27 percent of last year's gift cards have still not been used. So before you shell out for a gift of plastic, you'll want to do some checking.

Buying a gift card is easier than ever. There are racks in drug and grocery stores offering cards for everything from retailers to restaurants.

Banks offer cards, and of course, individual retailers and the shopping malls do, too. And you can go online.

But does everyone think gift cards are a great present?

For one recipient, "It passed the expiration date and I just threw it out after that."

Another consumer says, "They asked me for a $5 fee that I had to pay to get that gift card, and I totally refused."

Consumer Reports Money Adviser says all too often gift cards given to family and friends end up being worthless.

"This year approximately eight billion dollars in gifts cards will never be used. They may be lost or they may expire before they're cashed. But ultimately, it's money in the bank for the businesses that issue them," says a Consumer Reports spokesperson.

But if you've got someone on your list you know will use your gift card, your next move is to shop carefully.

Many cards have expiration dates and added fees, particularly bank-issued cards.

Mandy Walker says, "Take the iCard gift card. A $25 maintenance fee is automatically deducted after six months and again every six months thereafter."

And some bank-issued cards, like some from American Express and Visa, charge a purchase fee when you buy them - anywhere from $2 to $10.

Another problem Walker points out is that "you can't assume bank-issued gift cards are universally accepted, as the issuers will often have you believe."

So Consumer Reports says, before buying a gift card, read the fine print carefully. Avoid ones with fees or expiration dates. Or consider cash - a gift that has real currency.

Consumer Reports says another consideration when buying a gift card is whether it can be replaced if it's lost or stolen. Some can't be, and many others require proof of purchase to replace a card.

So Consumer Reports says if you're giving a gift card, get a gift receipt. And, if you get a gift card this holiday season, be sure to check the terms and conditions so your gift card doesn't become just a worthless piece of plastic.

Posted by Chantelle Janelle

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