Gift Cards: Know What You are Buying and Giving

Wondering what to buy someone on your gift list? For many shoppers, a gift card is the answer. Gift cards are convenient and found in multiple retail locations as well as through online merchants. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers plan to purchase three or four gift cards this season with an average amount of $47 per card. The most frequently purchased cards are for restaurants, department stores, coffee shops, Visa/Mastercard/American Express/Discover, and entertainment such as movies or music.

Consumer Reports and the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division offer these tips when purchasing gift cards:

  • Buy directly from stable and trusted sources. If a retail business closes, the recipient has a worthless card. Use caution when ordering cards through online gift card resellers.
  • Read the fine print and look for fees (activation or inactivity), costs to purchase the card, as well as any shipping and handling fees if you order the card through a website or by phone.
  • Retailers are not required to replace a lost or stolen card. However, some may with proof of purchase. Include the original receipt with the card.
  • The card’s Personal Identification Number (PIN) should be under a protective sticker and not scratched off. Scammers copy gift card codes then steal money loaded on the card.
  • Remember that a merchant card is valid only at the walk-in or online store of the issuing retailer.
  • Make sure the intended recipient will use the card. A large number of gift cards are unspent. Someone in a different region of the U.S. may have fewer options to use the card. Alert the recipient if the card has an expiration date.

If you have a dispute regarding a retail gift card, you can file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division ( or 515-281-5926 or, toll-free at 888-777-4590) or the Federal Trade Commission ( or toll-free at 877-FTC-HELP)

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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