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Saturday, May 18 2013 12:00 PM

Action Line: Best advice on gift cards: Use them

BY BLAIR LOONEY Contributing columnist

Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.

Dear Action Line,

One of my family members who lives out of state gave my elderly mother a gift card for Mother's Day. Mom is very excited to go shopping, but she really doesn't understand how the card can be used. Can you give me some advice on how I might explain this to her so that she will understand?

Dear reader,

Gift cards are so popular these days and they are as much fun to give as they are to get. I know how hard it is to find something new and creative for Mom because you've probably already sent flowers, bought her a roll of stamps, taken her out for dinner or paid for her newspaper for a year, etc. So a gift card is great if she is able to use it, and that is really the key. Gift cards are meant to be used. Here are some tips on what gift cards are and how they can be used. The best tip: Use the card.

There are couple of type of cards, the first being a retail card which may be used only with the merchant that has issued it. The other is a bank gift card, which carries the logo of payment card network like American Express, Discover, Visa or MasterCard and can be used wherever the brand is accepted.

Other things to know about gift cards is that the value on a gift card cannot expire for at least five years from the date the card was purchased, or from the date any additional money was loaded onto the card.

Inactivity fees can be charged if the card has not been used for a year, and you can be charged once per month. Again, the best advice is to use the card.

Don't forget to check your packaging. The expiration date must be clearly disclosed on the card and fees must be clearly disclosed either on the card or its packaging. Make sure you read all of the terms and conditions so that you know how you can use the card.

So, Mom, don't put it in your wallet and forget about it. Go out to lunch, get your hair done, buy a new dress, use it for yourself as it was intended when given. Spend it.

And if you have a problem with a gift card, contact the company that issued it. If you cannot resolve the problem at that level, you may want to file a complaint with your BBB at bbb.org or 322-2074.

For cards issued by retailers, you may also want to contact the Federal Trade Commission toll free at 877-FTC-HELP.

For cards issued by national banks, contact the Comptroller of the Currency's (OCC) Customer Assistance Group by calling 800-613-6743. The OCC regulates and supervises national banks.

-- Blair Looney is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or joey@cencal.bbb.org. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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