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Did you use your gift card yet?

There are many gift cards available and many variations as to their redemption. If you are confused, you are not alone. Here are some facts behind why one would feel confused.

Beneath a bold promise saying, “Treat this card like cash,” a card may say in smaller, lighter print, “Expires within one year unless otherwise designated by law except in California, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Illinois where there is no expiration.” Some cards do not have any disclosures.

Pennsylvania law is silent on one of the ugliest trends in gift cards: fees assessed for “maintenance” or “dormancy” that can quickly erode the value of a gift. Thanks to such fees, a gift card can become worthless even without an expiration date.

Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not explicitly bar expiration dates on gift certificates or gift cards. But it does bar merchants and restaurants from profiting from expiration dates. Even if a card “expires,” the money still belongs to the gift recipient, and must eventually be turned over to the state for safekeeping until it is claimed. Because of that, many Pennsylvania businesses will simply honor an expired gift card.

New Jersey law, updated in 2002, allows such fees as well as expiration dates, as long as the terms are disclosed to the buyer and printed conspicuously on the gift card or certificate itself.

A New York court ruled that money which goes unspent on expired gift cards must be turned over to the state as unclaimed property.

If an expired gift card is refused, you may be able to get the money back by filing a claim under state unclaimed-property laws. But the rules vary widely. Unredeemed gift cards are considered unclaimed property in Pennsylvania and Delaware, but not in New Jersey.

California and a few other states have taken a more consumer-friendly approach by barring expirations and nuisance fees on gift cards. Pennsylvania and New Jersey consumers deserve the same rights, but similar proposals have stalled in both states’ legislatures.

Meanwhile, remember those cards are indeed like cash: They’ll lose value, and maybe even disappear, if you leave them lying around. The idea is to redeem it as soon as possible. Also read the card and find out what that card requires for redemption.

To see if you’re owed funds for unredeemed gift cards contact your state’s bureau of unclaimed property. To see if you have funds for other unclaimed assets, visit CashUnclaimed.com. Here you will access the most comprehensive search of state and federal databases regarding unclaimed money.

Don’t throw away expired gift cards, because Pennsylvania and many other states recognize your ownership rights forever. So you can tell the merchant, “Honor the card now, or send my money to the state”.

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