National Consumers League

Reducing Gift Card Fees Is The Pro-Consumer Thing To Do


gift-cardsBy John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud

With the holiday shopping season quickly approaching, many consumers have started to think about what to give loved ones, friends, co-workers, and others who manage to make the list this year--a harder feat for many, given the current economy. While many shoppers will spend hours looking for “just the perfect thing,” many others will choose to give gift cards instead.

As anyone who has given or received a gift card in recent years can attest, today's gift cards are not the flimsy paper gift certificates of yesteryear. (Remember those?) Almost every major retailer, bank, and credit card company offers gift cards, and they can be used as easily--in most cases--as a credit or debit card. This has driven an explosion in the popularity of gift card sales. In 2007 alone, the industry totaled up $97 billion in sales, up from $83 billion in 2006. To put that number is context, the entire FY2009 budget for the Department of Homeland Security was $58 billion.

Last year, 7 out of 10 Americans received a gift card during the holiday season. (Great gift-giving minds think alike, eh?) Unfortunately, many consumers who have given or received gift cards have also noticed the cost of that convenience: fees, and lots of them.

Gift cards issued by retailers (known as “closed-loop” cards) tend not to charge many fees since they make their money on the markup on merchandise and services. However, the cards issued by banks, credit card companies, and shopping malls -- known as “open-loop” cards because they can be used at multiple retailers -– tend to pile on the fees. From fees charged for the “privilege” of buying the cards, to maintenance fees that deduct value from the card after six months, or even fees charged to check the balance on the card (not to mention the fees the card issuers get from merchants when the cards are swiped), these cards are veritable ATM machines for issuers.

We believe that wherever possible, the money consumers invest in gift cards should stay in their pockets. This is why today we are joining with Consumer Action and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) to launch the “Gift Card Holder's Bill of Rights.” The bill of rights spells out ten pro-consumer steps that gift card issuers can take to make gift cards a better deal for consumers. Given the fact that the economic crisis is likely to make this gift-giving season especially hard on consumers, we believe that gift card issuers should give consumers a break and eliminate or reduce their most egregious fees.

From NCL's press release announcing the Gift Card Holder's Bill of Rights:

"With the worst economic times in a generation looming and many Americans facing job loss, decreased wages, and increases in the cost of health care, groceries, and other goods, this holiday gift-buying season may be a source of dread, not joy, for consumers watching their budgets,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director. “The companies who profit from the rise in popularity of gift cards owe it to consumers to reduce their fees and expiration dates, improve the value of their cards, and compete for consumers’ business.”

While we wait for card issuers to improve their terms and conditions, there are several common-sense steps that consumers can take right now to avoid getting stuck with gift cards that deliver less value than they promise. We encourage you to check out the practical consumer tips in the new gift cards section of our Web site to learn more.

A final bit of parting advice: Think of giving gift cards like giving a fruit basket. It's a wonderful gift that can bring plenty of enjoyment, as long as they're used up before the fruit goes rotten. Like fruit baskets, make sure and use up those gift cards early to avoid getting pickled by costly fees and expiration dates.