Read our tips on how to get the most out of giving a gift card.

Gift card tips: Get more out of giving them

How often do pollsters ask 1,100 Americans anything and all of them agree?

When the Retail Gift Card Association conducted its own poll this month, it found, “100 percent of survey respondents have used a retail gift card in the last year.”

That could explain why, in 2013, Americans loaded $118 billion onto gift cards, and that number climbs each year. After all, gift cards are convenient and safer than cash. But they can cost you if you’re not careful…

1. Use them or lose them

Last year, consumers lost nearly $2 billion because their cards either expired or went unused, according to an annual study by business advisory group Corporate Executive Board Company. So the easiest advice is to simply rummage around your kitchen or desk drawers looking for dusty cards — and use them.

2. Inspect the card before buying it

Hundreds of consumers complain each year to the Better Business Bureau about getting ripped off by gift card scams. It can be as simple as a someone jotting down the number on the gift card and waiting for an innocent shopper to activate the card.

“Consumers need to be on the lookout for gift cards that appear to be ‘open’ or out of their original package,” says Christine Sauers from BBB Delaware.

The BBB says you should:

  • Verify that no protective stickers have been removed.
  • Check the codes on the back of the card to make sure they haven’t been scratched off to reveal a PIN number.
  • Report any damaged cards to the store selling them.

4. Keep the receipt

If something is wrong with the card and you don’t spot it till after you’ve left the store, the receipt is proof enough to fix the problem. Ditto if the card is lost or stolen. So when you give your gift card, also give the receipt.

5. Avoid bad businesses

If you buy a gift card from a company that goes bankrupt, there’s usually no way to recover that money. So do a little research before buying a card.

The BBB puts it this way: “Before you buy retail gift cards, consider the financial condition of the retailer or restaurant. A card from a business that files for bankruptcy or goes out of business may be worthless.”

6. Don’t buy into an offer that’s too good to be true

Don’t believe steep discounts and free offers that spam your email inbox. At least that’s what the FBI says: “Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Most of those offers that claim to be selling gift cards for 85 percent off are fraudulent. The FBI suggests searching the company or website in the BBB’s database to see if it’s legitimate. Just type the company name into the search bar at the top and see if they’re registered. You can also read complaints consumers filed with the different companies.

7. Buy cards from retailers, not banks

Most banks charge you to buy a gift card. Fairly typical is U.S. Bank, which adds a $3.95 “purchase fee” if you buy it at one of their branches — and $6.95 if you buy online. There’s also this weird fee apparently designed to make the card self-destruct: “After the first 12 calendar months following the issue date of the card, a $2.50 fee will be charged to your Gift Card each month until the card expires.”

But nearly all retailers rarely charge fees, whether it’s Victoria’s Secret or Men’s Warehouse. Plus, they usually don’t have expiration dates, because that discourages shoppers from coming back. Guess banks don’t care.

8. Check the little print

The BBB puts it this way: “Read the fine print before buying. Is there a fee to buy the card? Are there shipping and handling fees for cards bought by phone or online? Will any fees be deducted from the card after it is purchased?”

That US Bank gift card we mentioned? It buries its onerous fees on this terms and conditions page that’s two clicks away from the offer page. Of course it does.

9. Be careful buying online

There are a few credible discount gift card websites that can save you a pretty penny, but you’re also at risk of getting scammed when you look for discounts.

The BBB lists credible gift card sites in their database. Debt.com took the liberty of listing a few with details you need to know about each, including the BBB rating based on consumer complaints and background information on the companies:

1. ABC Gift Cards

  • Savings: Up to 35 percent.
  • Shipping: Free.
  • Guarantee: “We extensively verify and validate every card we sell.”
  • Return policy: They have a strict no-return policy unless, “a card turns out to be a fraudulent card or if there is a balance discrepancy.” In this case, they will either replace the card or refund the purchase within 45 days. 
  • BBB ratingA+

2. Cardpool

  • Savings: Up to 35 percent.
  • Shipping: Free.
  • Guarantee: “If you purchase any gift card from Cardpool, we guarantee it will be valid at the merchant and to the dollar amount specified on your order.” The guarantee protects up to $1,ooo per customer for up to 100 days form purchase.
  • Return policy: You can return any unused cards for full refund, but not the e-Gift Cards.
  • BBB ratingA+

3. GiftCards.com

  • Savings: Up to 35 percent.
  • Shipping: Free.
  • Guarantee: “We offer a purchase guarantee on discount gift cards up to 100 days from the date of purchase and a maximum of $1000 per customer.”
  • Return policy: You can return any unused cards for full refund within one year, but not the e-Gift Cards.
  • BBB ratingA+

4. Gift Card Spread

  • Savings: Up to 30 percent.
  • Shipping: Free, if it’s over $100, otherwise there’s a $1 shipping charge.
  • Guarantee“We guarantee all our cards, and offer a 45 days refund policy for “item not as described” condition.”
  • Return policy: Refunds are given within 45 days, “ONLY if the balance on the gift card received is different from the stated.” They also not, “We will do our best to get in contact with our seller, and get your refund even after the 45 day window, however we cannot guarantee this.”
  • BBB rating: A-
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