Buying gift cards may seem easy, but ask questions and check fine print


As the holiday shopping season winds down, you may be considering gift cards for friends or relatives who have everything or those who live far away. 

Gift cards are an easy solution to people who are hard-to-please or already have everything. And they’re everywhere – at the drugstore, supermarket, quick shop and department stores. E-gift card options make it an even easier gift, not to mention a safer one during COVID-19.

They’re also big business. Consumers spend billions on gift cards every year, with about a third purchased in the holiday season.  

Buying gift cards may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a good idea to ask questions, check the fine print and make sure any packaging and coatings covering serial numbers are intact. In the past, some thieves have scratched off the coating that covers the serial numbers and attempted to use the cards after a shopper bought and activated them.

Better Business Bureau receives hundreds of complaints about gift card purchases last year, and some consumers have reported problems with sites that sell gift cards online. Some online retailers offer gift cards that can be delivered directly to the recipient. When you buy online, make sure the web page where you enter financial details like credit card numbers is secure. The URL should start with https://.

Make sure you understand any limitations on the cards. Some may be usable only in a store or on a retailer’s website. Some impose fees to replace a lost card, or the card may expire before you use all of its value.

Here are a few more BBB tips on buying gift cards.

  • Be cautious about buying gift cards from online auctions. It is virtually impossible to tell whether the cards have any value remaining, to determine whether they’ve been tampered with or to see if they’ve expired.
  • When buying gift cards in a store, check the packaging and any security seals to be sure they are intact and that no one has tampered with them.
  • Check the fine print to see if fees are associated with the card. Some typical fees could include transaction fees or inactivity fees. In some cases, an organization may charge a service fee to issue the card or a replacement card.
  • See if the card has an expiration date. In some cases, the plastic card may expire before the five-year redemption period. Are there fees to obtain a new card?
  • Check the terms and conditions on a gift card. If you are giving a card to a friend who wants to shop online, make sure the card can be used that way and not just in a store.
  • Consider the financial condition of the retailer or bank issuing the card. If you think the store may be on shaky footing, you may want to pass on buying a card.

Consumers can learn how to protect themselves or find BBB Business Profiles and BBB Charity Reviews at

Don O’Brien is the regional director for the Quincy Better Business Bureau. Contact him at or (217) 209-3972.

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