5 tips for gift card giving to avoid fees, expiry dates

Gift cards are popular stocking stuffers, but if you're not careful, you may end up losing money on them.
Consumers should always read the fine print on gift cards. ((CBC))

Gift cards are popular stocking stuffers, but if you're not careful, you may end up losing money on them.

In 2010, Canadians spent about $6 billion on gift cards.

Even though Manitoba has laws to protect consumers from expiry dates and maintenance fees on gift cards, it still pays to read the fine print.

Cards issued by shopping malls are exempt under legislation introduced in Manitoba in 2007. After the cards have been inactive for 12 months, a maximum monthly fee of $2.50 can kick in.

"And it's from the date of the purchase of the card, too, remember," said Mel Fruitman, Vice President of the Consumers' Association of Canada.  

"So if you go six months beyond that you'll have lost $15 out of the value of that card.  If it's a $25 card, you don't have much left," Fruitman said.

Fruitman said having different rules for different kinds of cards, can cause confusion for consumers.

"Extremely confusing and as far as we're concerned there is absolutely no justification for exempting the shopping centre mall cards," Fruitman said.

"They are gift cards the same as anything else.  Why should that be any different, than any other card?  Use it when you want, where you want."

Where and when consumers can use gift cards, without having to worry about any fees, varies from province to province.

"Unfortunately this all falls under provincial jurisdiction, not federal, so every province has its own laws under consumer protection and there are variations right across the country," Fruitman said.

"Some of them that do exempt malls have different lengths of time that a card is valid in a mall before they can start charging you an administration fee."

Saskatchewan brought in a law similar to Manitoba's in 2008.  But in Saskatchewan, shopping centre cards are covered by the ban on fees and expiry dates.

Fruitman said it's unfortunate that there are different degrees of consumer protection for Canadians, depending on where they live.

Five Tips from Mel Fruitman:

1. Know the person you are buying for and make sure they would want to use a gift card at the store you've chosen. 

2. If you're getting someone a gift card from a shopping mall, make sure the person knows when you purchased it. 

3. If you're giving a mall gift card, make sure the recipient knows when the card will begin losing its value. 

4. Pay close attention to gift cards that are for a specific service like a spa day, since they often have expiry dates. 

5. When all else fails - give cash and make your own personalized gift card.