With gift cards, make sure to read the fine print

Hank Silverberg, wtop.com

WASHINGTON — Did you get a gift card for the holidays? You should check the fine print or it could quickly lose value.

The first thing to check is whether the card is good only at one particular store or a Visa, Mastercard or American Express gift card that can be preloaded and used anywhere.

Then, check the expiration date. It may have been purchased months ago and the clock may already be ticking.

“They are required to be valid for at least five years under federal law,” says Karen Straughn, director of the mediation unit of the Consumer Affairs Division in Maryland.

But she says the preloaded credit cards usually have fees associated with their use or non-use. The fees are usually spelled out on the card or on packaging that comes with the card.

Maryland law protects you against such fees on store issued cards for four years after purchase but other states may not.

Her recommendation is to use a gift card as soon as possible so that you get the most out of it.

“That protects you as well, in the event that the store goes out of business you may be left without any value to the card,” says Straughn.

The National Retail Federation estimates almost $28 billion worth of gift cards were sold this holiday season. As much as $2 billion of that may go unused.

If you have more questions on giftcards, you can find some answers here.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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