Missouri State Treasurer Clint Zweifel

Don’t trash old gift cards, treasurer says

By Kris Hilgedick
Columbia Daily Tribune
December 1, 2010

The Christmas gift card you buy for Aunt Edna might never be cashed in, but if you keep track of your receipt, you — or your aunt — might get your money back someday.

Missouri Treasurer Clint Zweifel holds $5.2 million in unclaimed property from unredeemed gift cards and gift certificates. It’s a small but growing portion of the $600 million of unclaimed money Zweifel safeguards.

"The key is keeping the physical card or certificate," Zweifel said. "Even if a gift card or certificate expires, any remaining value is required to be turned over" to the state "after five years."

Nearly $60,000 has been returned to Missourians from the unclaimed property fund, but it’s a small portion of the millions left unclaimed.

Each year, Americans spend about $65 billion in gift cards — excluding bank-issued prepaid cards — but about $6.8 billion of that is not redeemed, according to research by TowerGroup, a financial consulting firm.

Those with unused cards should first check with the retailer to see if it is redeemable. If not, owners should then check www.showmemoney.com to see if their name is listed. If it is not, the holder is advised to contact Zweifel’s office at (573) 751-0123 to see if the money is available. Consumers will find it easier to access the unclaimed funds if they’ve kept a paper trail that they can use to prove the money is theirs.

In August, new federal rules went into effect for retail and bank gift cards. The rules say:

  • Money on a gift card cannot expire for at least five years from the date the card was purchased, or from the last date any money was loaded on the card. The money can be transferred to a replacement card at no cost.
  • Inactivity fees can be charged only after a card hasn’t been used for at least one year, and then only once per month.
  • Expiration dates and fees must be clearly disclosed.

Doug Ommen, chief counsel for the Missouri Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, said Missouri doesn’t have laws that specifically regulate gift cards. However, his division does use a state law that permits the prosecution of "unfair practices" in situations where there is a general standard to enforce, such as the August issuance of new federal guidelines.

Ommen advised buyers to read the fine print and to avoid buying cards from online auctions because of the likelihood of fraud.

"Don’t assume there’s not going to be a charge," he said, noting some retailers layer on fees that can reduce a card’s value.

"My best tip is if you buy a card, get it from a reputable, known retailer."

Zweifel said retailers are supposed to return the unused money on a card, but not all retailers know to do so. No one enforces the law in Missouri, he said, but "we do our best to promote and encourage individual businesses" by making the unclaimed property system easy to use.

More companies are eschewing expiration dates, though.

Laura Bullion, a co-owner of Bluestem Missouri Crafts in Columbia, said her business issues gift certificates instead of cards. She said she wasn’t aware of the need to return unused ones but noted: "At Bluestem, they don’t expire."

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