Making the most out of gift cards: How to protect yours, what to do with unwanted ones

Research organization CEB TowerGroup estimates that $1 billion of the $130 billion spent on gift cards last year went unused

A gift card kiosk is shown at a CVS/Pharmacy Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 in New York. About $5 billion, or about 5 percent, of what Americans spend on gift cards isn't translated into goods, including counting what's lost to various fees, according to TowerGroup, a financial serices consulting firm.(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A gift card kiosk is shown at a CVS/Pharmacy Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 in New York. About $5 billion, or about 5 percent, of what Americans spend on gift cards isn't translated into goods, including counting what's lost to various fees, according to TowerGroup, a financial serices consulting firm.(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(AP) – Chances are you probably have a few gift cards in your wallet after Christmas, but if you’re not careful you could wind up losing out.

Treating your gift cards correctly can make all the difference.

Gift cards offer great convenience, but consumer organizations warn when reliable retailers go out of business you could be out of luck.

“I feel like that’s more of an issue for smaller businesses, like Barnes and Noble or Starbucks, they’re more established. It has happened, like Border I think it happened to a while ago,” said Anna Kotorobay, a shopper from West Springfield.

In Ohio, state law requires gift cards be valid for at least two years after purchase. But experts say if a business closes, there is no real remedy to redeem your gift card for cash.

So, it’s wise to quickly use your gift cards. But even then, there’s still a risk.

“It actually happened to me once, because someone gave me the card and actually nothing was on it, so it was weird,” said Valentina Shyshla, a shopper from West Springfield.

Thieves will sometimes steal the information from gift cards on display, using it once they can see online that an amount has been added to it.

Gift cards from large chain stores offer some protection, but you still have to be careful.

Even gift cards issued from credit card companies can come with hidden activation fees, and monthly fees, reducing their value. Some cards will even charge fees for inactivity.

So, check the small print and hang on to the gift receipt your gift giver gave you.

But, what should you do if you receive a gift card you don’t want?

Here are a few options:

REGIFT IT

If you can’t use the card or just don’t want it, someone else might. Gift cards are typically good for several years and there are no rules about changing hands.

SELL IT

There are various exchanges online, such as Cardpool.com, Raise.com and Cardcash.com, where you can buy and sell gift cards. You won’t get the full value of the card but you’ll recoup some of the value.

“Expect to get about 80 to 90 cents on the dollar of the value of the card at a reputable site,” said Teri Llach, chief marketing officer for the Blackhawk Network, which owns Cardpool.

Llach strongly discourages consumers from going rogue and trying to sell or buy one for themselves online as there’s no way to tell if you are being conned. An established and reputable site will guarantee that you are getting the promised balance in the time frame you want.

If you are more of an in-person sort, you can visit a CoinStar Exchange kiosk to get cash for your gift cards. Target will allow you to bring in gift cards for major brands with remaining balances on them and exchange them for a Target gift card.

You still won’t get the full value, but it’s a better deal than gathering dust.

DONATE IT

You can do this by handing the card directly to a charity. Consider a church, food bank or school that might use it to buy supplies, or offer it to a needy family in your community.

Cardpool and Compassion International co-founded CardFunder which lets consumers donate gift cards with available funds on them to a number of charitable efforts.