This is a consumer advice column written by the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana. It appears Thursdays in Business.
Gift cards may take the guesswork out of gift giving, but you sure don't want to leave the recipient feeling bamboozled.
Gift cards make excellent presents, especially during the holidays when you're unsure of what to buy for a family member or friend. But like everything else, gift cards may have hidden fees and strings attached. It's important to read the fine print before buying and giving.
Both the United States and Canada have recently made changes in federal laws to improve consumers' chances of getting full value out of the cards they buy and give. These rules generally apply to gift certificates, store gift cards and general-use prepaid cards, which are often branded by payment networks such as Visa or MasterCard.
Here are some helpful tips from BBB regarding gift card purchases:
•Buy from sources you know and trust. Avoid buying gift cards from online auction sites, because the cards may be counterfeit or may have been obtained fraudulently.
•Read the fine print before you buy. Is there a fee to buy the card? If you buy a card by phone or online, are there shipping and handling fees? If you don't like the terms and conditions, buy elsewhere.
•See whether any fees will be deducted from the card after you purchase it.
•Inspect the card before you buy it. Verify that none of the protective stickers have been removed. Make sure that the codes on the back of the card haven't been scratched off to reveal a PIN. Report any damaged cards to the store selling the cards.
•Give the recipient your original receipt so he or she can verify the card's purchase in case it is lost or stolen.
•Consider the financial condition of the retailer or restaurant.
Despite ongoing issues with gift cards, sales of gift cards are still expected to increase this year. According to a survey by Consumer Reports, 62 percent of consumers are planning to buy gift cards this holiday season.
For more information on U.S. regulations of gift cards, go to www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/ pubs/consumer/alerts/alt010.pdf.
For more information on Canadian regulations of gift cards, go to www.retailcouncil.org/advocacy/national/cards/GiftCardLegislation-Canada.pdf.