Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘Tis the season to cheat consumers?

Call me a Scrooge if you like, but I've got a problem with
gift cards.

As I was packing up my belongings to head home for
Thanksgiving, I discovered a Best Buy gift card still loaded with a large sum
floating around beneath a well-worn pair of reindeer socks. Hurrah! Christmas
money! Never mind how it ended up in my sock drawer — there is nothing like
finding a little money tucked away right before the holidays.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that I had already spent
that money on someone's Christmas present; I had shoved it right into the
pockets of Best Buy's CEO, Brad Anderson.


It's happened to all of us — a gift card that expired before
you even remembered that you had it. Some cards expire in a year, others two,
some even five years. Once they expire, they're worthless, and some stores even
make it a point to chew up their value before they expire with monthly
"inactivity" or "dormancy" fees. These fees, imposed after a specific amount of
time, usually start as a small amount taken out of the card's value each month,
but can reduce the card's balance to zero in as little as a year.

In many states, stores are required to turn over the unused
or expired money on a gift card to the state as unclaimed property, and the
cardholder can reclaim the money from the state. Some states even prohibit
expiration dates altogether and require stores to accept the gift card
indefinitely, and others allow the stores to keep the money only if their cards
have no expiration date. Others have restrictions, such as Wyoming, which only
lets merchants keep sums of $100 or less.

Wisconsin is part of the minority of states that let stores
keep every cent on that gift card with no strings attached if it is not
redeemed before its expiration. This flies in the face of Wisconsin's long
history of consumer protection and is perhaps one of our Legislature's dirtiest
little secrets.

Current Wisconsin law doesn't regulate gift cards at all.
This is why Best Buy and other stores in Wisconsin get to keep your expired
gift card money. In this case, if you don't use it, you really do lose it. Past
efforts to legislate gift cards in Wisconsin have flopped, but there are
currently four bills pending in the state Legislature that are making another
attempt to protect consumers at widely varying levels.

One merchant-friendly bill — AB 360 — requires stores to
disclose expiration dates and service fees, but imposes no limits on those fees
or expiration dates. Under a recent and particularly irresponsible amendment to
SB 191, verbal disclosure is sufficient — the expiration date doesn't even have
to be on the card.

Two consumer-friendly bills — SB 245 and AB 471 — prohibit
expiration dates and service charges on gift cards.

All four bills are working their way through the committee
process, but their success is unsure. If history is any indication, powerful
lobbyists for merchant trade groups such as the Wisconsin Restaurant
Association will successfully kill any gift card legislation prohibiting expiration
dates and inactivity fees and will support a disclosure law only if they decide
that some sort of legislation is inevitable and a disclosure law is the lesser

A mere glance at past sales explains why merchants take this
issue seriously. According to Consumer Reports, 2006 gift card sales reached
$80 billion, of which 10 percent — $8 billion — expired or went unused. In
states with laws like Wisconsin's, the stores get to keep the money, which is
recorded as "profit."

A more accurate term would be legalized theft.

And how could I forget my dear friend Best Buy, which,
according to Consumer Reports, recorded a $43 million gain in 2006 from gift
cards that it decided were likely to expire or go unused. You might want to ask
for something else this Christmas.

none of the four current bills address the elephant in the room — who gets the
money from expired gift cards. They are debating over disclosures and
prohibitions, but not over amending Wisconsin's abandoned property law to
include gift cards — perhaps the more important point. If this isn't changed,
then merchants in Wisconsin will continue to profit hugely from expired or
forgotten gift cards.

greedy merchants insist on draining our gift cards with expiration dates, a
slew of fees and legal jargon, then that money should be used to benefit public
institutions like education and health care, not some big-box executive's
fourth vacation home.

more enlightened merchants are willing to issue gift cards with no expiration
date or monthly fees, let them hold onto the money forever as long as we can
use the card forever. Even if we never use them, we will be spared from kicking
ourselves every time we clean out our sock drawers.

Laura Brennan ([email protected])
is a junior majoring in communicative disorders.

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