NEW YORK — New federal rules for gift cards mean you have longer to use them and don't face as many costs up front. But many problems remain. For starters, the rules that went into effect recently don't cover all gift cards. And the Americans who spend tens of billions of dollars each year on gift cards — $23.6 billion last November and December alone — still have to pay fees for not using them, and those fees aren't capped. Here's what you need to know.
The rules put more time on your side. You now have at least five years to spend your balance on most cards, while many used to be good for only one year.
But a key improvement — card issuers must now wait a year before charging an inactivity fee — could lead issuers to charge higher fees later to make up the difference, says Laura Lane, vice president for unclaimed property services at the Keane Organization Inc., which advises companies on risk management.
"It could be good for consumers in that they have a year before fees are charged," she says. "However, once that year is up, who knows how good for consumers that will be."
More time means more chances to lose gift cards in wallets, household junk drawers and wherever gift cards go.
The National Retail Federation recommends spending gift cards as soon as you can and registering them whenever that's possible. Some retailers, including Starbucks, let you keep your balance if you lose a registered card.
Also, if you're giving a card, include the gift receipt in case of problems, says J. Craig Shearman, the trade group's vice president for government affairs.
There's no limit on the monthly fee issuers can charge after the first year, and Lane says it's likely they'll charge as much as shoppers tolerate — perhaps $5 a month. Issuers are still allowed to charge a fee when you buy a card and a fee to replace it if it's lost or stolen.
The new rules don't necessarily cover reloadable prepaid cards when they carry logos for MasterCard, Visa, American Express and other lenders. When those cards are used like debit cards and reloaded by, say, an employer, they are not covered. But if shoppers buy them at malls, for example, they are covered.
Also not covered: government-issued cards for food stamps, and rebates or refunds disguised as gift cards. Reward cards — such as a $5 card you may receive for buying a certain amount of merchandise or a $50 rebate for signing a cell phone contract — can still expire much sooner than the five-year minimum on other cards.
Lane says more companies are giving rebates through electronic cards because they make it easier for companies to track how much is yet to be redeemed.
While issuers soon must print expiration dates, inactivity fees and other restrictions on cards, that rule doesn't take effect until Jan. 31, Shearman says. (The retail group asked for the delay, saying it would have been difficult to ensure cards without the fine print were removed from circulation.)