Gift cards not same as cash

Buying a holiday gift for someone can carry a risk.

They might not like it.

They might already have it.

It could be defective or just the wrong color.

There’s a reason Dec. 26 is traditionally the busiest day of the year for returns at stores across the country.

Some people try to bypass this predicament and instead let their picky loved one or friend select their own gift.

Giving someone a retail gift card or gift certificate is one way around it.

But experts warn that even this safety net doesn’t come without its own risks, especially in this economic climate when some companies could be flirting with going out of business.

“That transaction is really dependent upon the stability of the company from whom you buy the gift certificate,” says Angela Wilson, the deputy Kansas attorney general for the consumer protection and antitrust division.

Here’s a list of tips from the attorney general’s office and the Federal Trade Commission for buying and using gift cards:

• Stick to stable and established companies. Major retailers are much less likely to go out of business on such short notice. If a chain or independent store does close down, the gift card loses all of its value.

Also, some debit-type cards are available now, which means they can be redeemed at several stores instead of just one.

• Avoid buying cards from online auction sites because the cards might be counterfeit or obtained by fraudulent means.

• Put the receipt in the gift envelope with the gift card. This helps verify the card’s purchase in case it is stolen or lost. It’s also helpful to give as much information as possible along with the gift.

• Read the fine print. Sometimes fees can be attached, which gobbles up the value of the gift card. It helps to know the details before you buy the card as a gift.

“Just be aware of those things. It keeps people from being disappointed or fighting with clerks,” says Wilson, a former assistant Douglas County district attorney.

• Use the gift card within the first year after receiving it to prevent fees from being taken out of it. Otherwise, be aware of potential expiration dates.

• Activate the card soon after receiving it. It should include instructions with a toll-free phone number to call.

• If there’s a problem when you try to redeem a gift card at the store, ask to speak to a manager or someone who can help.

“People want their customers to be happy most of the time. If that doesn’t work, and they are not honoring a gift card that is valid after it’s issued, then definitely file a complaint,” Wilson says.

The FTC also has an assistance line for help with cards issued by retailers at (877) FTC-HELP. Consumer complaints can be filed online through the Kansas attorney general’s Web site,