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Consumer Alert

Solving a riddle behind a ‘gift card’ that expires

Q. I am looking for help with an issue about gift cards. I recently purchased a computer from Dell and as part of the purchase they sent me what they call “Promotional eGift Cards.” The terms of the gift card say that “Available funds expire 90 days from the issuance date (except where prohibited by law).” My understanding has been that under Massachusetts law, gift cards are not allowed to expire, so I did not worry too much about the expiration. Now, when trying to use them, I am being told that the funds are gone and nothing can be done to reinstate them. I asked to speak to a supervisor and was told the same thing. Is there any way to get the money back?

A. This is a confusing one indeed. Kind of like a riddle, really.

Continue reading below

What calls itself a gift card, but really isn’t one? A promotional eGift card.

Companies offer incentives like this all the time to try to keep customers spending. Some offer real gift cards. But, in this case, they are not what they seem.

“Just calling something a gift card does not make it a gift card,” according to the folks at the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs. To qualify as a gift card — the kind whose value remains forever — someone actually has to put real money on it. In this case, the promotional cards, while confusing in name, were essentially just short-term discounts. They are not subject to the same rules as gift cards.

It would have been another story entirely had you or someone else purchased the gift cards and the company didn’t honor them. But these are clearly marked with expiration dates, and the terms that ­apply to these promotional cards are posted to the company website.

Dell, which didn’t comment, sets the terms of its offers and, as inappropriately named as they may be, these promotional eGift cards are really nothing more than expired coupons. Sorry for the bad news.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and ­also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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