''Treat this gift card like cash.” This is a common warning seen printed on gift cards because when a consumer loses a gift card, its value can be gone for good.
The features that make gift cards so convenient — their small size and the fact that you can tuck them away to use later, also make them easy to misplace, lose or even get stolen.
So, if you lose a gift card, do you have any recourse? In some cases, yes. Merchants sometimes will issue you a new gift card — but experts say that depends on the retailer, proof that you owned the gift card and, sometimes, how hard you try.
Lost your gift card? Now what?
It's important to contact the retailer as soon as you realize your gift card is missing. Taking quick action can reduce the chance that someone else will use the gift card before it's reported lost or stolen.
What if someone else finds your gift card and uses it? “You're pretty much out of luck,” says Matt Davies, a gift card expert and owner of Powerhouse Brands, a gift card consulting company.
–Kwame Kuadey, GiftCardRescue.com
Policies about lost gift cards vary by retailer, but it's easiest to get a replacement card if you have the original receipt from the purchase, experts say. For example, Wal-Mart's lost gift card policy states you must have the original receipt.
However, many stores will allow you to present the debit or credit card that was used to buy the gift card, so the retailer can look up the purchase transaction number and locate the gift card number, Davies says.
But don't count on that, says Kwame Kuadey, founder and CEO of the gift card exchange site GiftCardRescue.com. “I've seen many customers lose gift cards because the retailer won't do the extra work to try to recover the card.”
If you don't want to go through the hassle of contacting the retailer and getting a new gift card, you might have another option. If you recorded the gift card number, whether on a piece of paper or in an app or mobile wallet, you can go to the retailer's website or store and redeem your card that way. “All gift cards are is a card number — it could be on your phone, it could be on a piece of paper,” Davies says.
And if the retailer tells you you're out of luck, be persistent. You might eventually prevail, Davies says.
“Merchants don't want a gift card issue to turn into something ugly,” he says.
Keeping your gift cards safe
Because it can be such a hassle to try to get a gift card replaced, it pays to keep these little pieces of plastic safe. If you are planning to give a gift card, or if you just tore the wrapping paper off a shiny new card, what can you do to prevent its loss? Here are some tips:
1. Give a general gift card. As a gift giver, you probably relish putting thought into a gift, says Robyn LeBoeuf, an associate professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, who has studied gift giving and gift cards. For example, if your best friend loves to cook, it might seem like a great idea to give a Williams Sonoma card so she can get a cool kitchen gadget. However, LeBoeuf's research shows that recipients who receive more general cards – for example, a Visa or MasterCard gift card – use them more quickly.
“The general cards can be used for more things — they're just more practical,” LeBoeuf says. “Specific cards tend to get tucked away for a special purchase.” And, she says, a gift card that gets stashed somewhere probably is more likely to get lost.
–Matt Davies, Powerhouse Brands
2. Buy the right way. If you buy a gift card with cash at a brick-and-mortar store, there's no record of the purchase except your receipt. However, if you buy a gift card online, or use a credit or debit card at a store, your purchase information will be on file with the seller, says Shelley Hunter, a gift card expert known as “Gift Card Girlfriend” at GiftCards.com.
3. Record gift card details. You can jot down your gift card information (and keep it in a safe place, of course) or use an app or mobile wallet to record the gift card number and PIN. Using an app such as Gyft allows you to keep all of your gift card numbers safely in one place and track balances, Kuadey says, noting that the average person has three to five gift cards. “A number of apps have popped up that allow you to convert your physical gift card into a digital one,” Davies says. Most use cloud-based servers, so you can recover your gift card number even if you lose your device, he says.
4. Register the card if you can. Some merchants, such as Starbucks and Crate and Barrel, allow you to register your gift card for use online. This can provide an extra layer of protection, Davies says. But Kuadey says it can be more hassle than it's worth if you already recorded your gift card number via an app: “It's just one more site you have to log onto,” he says.
5. Guard your cards. Treat your gift card like a $50 bill. Don't leave it lying around on a table, in a drawer or on the floor of your car, says Dan Horne, gift card expert and professor of marketing at Providence College. “Thieves love gift cards,” Horne says. If a criminal steals your car stereo, he can get only about 20 cents on the dollar for it, Horne says. But if he nabs your gift card, he use the full value himself, or sell it for about 80 cents on the dollar, he says.
6. Spend it or sell it. With gift cards, it's out of sight, it's out of mind — so keep your card visible, Hunter says. She keeps her cards sitting out at home in a business card holder. Another option: Put your cards in your wallet right next to your most-used credit or debit card, she says. The longer you keep a gift card around, the more likely you are to forget you have it. “Gift cards are kind of use it or lose it,” Kuadey says, noting that most people know as soon as they get the card whether they want to use it. If you know you'll never use your gift card, you can sell it at one of many gift card resale sites, such as GiftCardGranny.com, CardPool.com, Raise.com and many others. “If you're not going to use it, then re-gift it or sell it and get cash.”