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THE FINE PRINT

Got gift cards as holiday presents? Here’s what to know about using (or selling) them.

Gift cards displayed at a Target store. You can buy gift cards in grocery stores and elsewhere without worrying about size or style.Richard Drew/Associated Press

You may be among the millions of people who got a gift card over the holidays. It’s the second most popular gift after clothing, notching $30 billion in sales, according to the National Retail Federation. (Toys come in third.) One great advantage is that they are easy to shop for: You can buy them in grocery stores and chain pharmacies without worrying about size or style. And the recipient gets to choose something they really want.

Still, you might have gotten one for a store where you never shop. Here’s everything you need about using — or selling — gift cards.

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What’s the most important thing to know about a gift card?

Use it before you lose it. Research shows that if you don’t use your gift card in the first few months the chances of you ever using it plummet. People forget they have them or where they stashed them.

Do gift cards expire?

In California and a few other states, gift cards never expire, while federal law mandates a five-year minimum life. But most big national issuers of gift cards have opted to impose no expiration date, no matter what state they are in.

Cards issued by merchants in Massachusetts can expire no sooner than seven years.

Can I sell my gift card for cash?

There is a so-called secondary market online for selling and purchasing gift cards, including the websites GiftCash, Raise, and CardCash.

The amount you get fluctuates, based on customer demand, and is different for different cards. I experimented by testing how much I would receive on GiftCash for $100 gift cards from Target ($80), Walmart ($80), Lowe’s ($82), and The Home Depot ($88).

Some gift cards are not accepted for sale. GiftCash, for example, made no offer to purchase gift cards from Amazon or a local restaurant.

Can I return my unwanted gift card to a retailer?

Some retailers may accept a return of a gift card if you have the receipt and the gift card hasn’t been used. But don’t count on it.

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What happens to the unused balances on gift cards?

In a few states, all unused balances on gift cards go to the state as abandoned property. In Massachusetts, the unused balances on cards issued by banks in affiliation with a credit card company, such as Visa or MasterCard, are required to go to the state. For the others, there is no such requirement; some card issuers do so voluntarily but many do not.

Gift cards are displayed at a Target store in New York on Dec. 21, 2023. Richard Drew/Associated Press

Can I be charged an “inactivity” fee if I don’t use my gift card right away?

An inactivity fee can be charged only if there has been no activity for one year, and only if the policy is clearly stated on the card or its packaging. Merchant-issued cards for stores and restaurants generally do not have such fees.

What’s a digital gift card?

E-gift cards work like physical ones but without an actual card. The giver buys the card online and loads it with money. The recipient receives a unique gift code number by email. E-gift cards can be used for purchases online and by phone, but not at in-person retail stores. Traditional physical cards remain more popular.

What happens if the gift card I have is for a business that closes before I can use it?

If the restaurant or retailer closes, you’re thrust into the unenviable position of chasing the owner for the unused balance on your card. And keep in mind restaurants are susceptible to abrupt closings, having an average lifespan of just a few years. And restaurants account for about one-third of all gift cards. If the restaurant is bankrupt, you are relegated to the back of the line among creditors. Not a place you want to be — and another reason to use your card promptly.

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What should I do with my Amazon gift card?

Upload it into your Amazon account right away. It should show up as a credit. Now you can discard the card. Amazon will automatically draw from your gift card balance — rather than from the credit card you have on file — the next time you make a purchase.

Can I check the balance on my gift card?

Yes, for cards issued by national retailers and banks in affiliation with credit card companies, it’s easy. Just check the back of the card for the website or 1-800 telephone number used for checking balances. Punch in the card’s 16-digit serial number and three-digit CVV code and get your balance instantly.

But don’t get fooled by counterfeit websites when trying to check your balance. Scammers created them to look like the real thing. They want you to think you are typing serial numbers and codes into legitimate sites. Double check what it says on your card.

Are there scams to be wary of?

Gift cards are one of the most important tools of the trade for scam artists. They try to trick or scare people into buying gift cards and reading the serial numbers and codes to them over the phone. With that information, scammers can convert your gift card into cash by selling it online.

Remember, if someone asks you to buy gift cards and read them the numbers, it’s a scam. Don’t do it.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him @spmurphyboston.