Did you get a gift card for Christmas? If so, please heed this important warning from the Illinois State Treasurer.

Use it now! If you are like a lot of people, myself included, you sock away that gift card for that special occasion and forget about it.  There is a problem with this method. According to Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs, the risk is that you could try to use the card some day in the future, and find out that is has no value or a substantially reduced value.

One of the lesser-known roles of the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office involves gift cards.

Frerichs says that there are two kinds of gift cards

  • Retail gift cards-  are only redeemable at a specific retailer or restaurant.
  • Bank gift cards - which carry a payment network such as American Express, MasterCard, or Visa, can be used at any location that accepts that specific brand.

Resist the urge to save the card for a rainy day. Doing so may increase the likelihood that some of the card’s value will be consumed by fees. Instead, use the card and set aside an equal amount of cash for a rainy day.

So what is so bad about Bank gift cards? The money on a typical bank gift card cannot expire for at least five years, HOWEVER, "inactivity fees" can begin in as little as 12 months. Which means that these fees could consume the cash value of a bank gift card before the five year window has expired.

There is a rule for 'most' gift cards sold in Illinois. Under the Illinois’ Consumer Fraud Act, gift cards that are usable only at a specific retailer or restaurant are not allowed to incur inactivity fees. However, businesses that close likely will not honor an outstanding gift card.

I got burned by this twice. You recall Lonestar Steakhouse in Rockford. Late last year I received a number of e-mails promoting $100 gift cards for $70. So, I went into the restaurant and purchased one. Who doesn't like a steak purchased at a discount? Two weeks later, Lonestar announced it will close it's doors. So, here I am with a $100 gift card  and no place to use it. I felt like I was ripped off, which I was. Same thing with my Ruby Tuesday gift cards. All of the Ruby Tuesday Illinois and Wisconsin locations abruptly shut their doors without warning, leaving those with Gift cards no options to use them.

My first piece advice, especially with restaurant gift cards, is the use them right away!

My second piece of advice, don't buy E-gift cards from eBay or private secondhand sellers. I purchased an e-gift card from an eBay seller. Upon receiving the  e-gift card, I checked the value online, and confirmed it was worth $50. So, I socked it away for a few months. Shortly thereafter, I planned to use the card at Rockford restaurant and found out it's value was now ZERO. Yes, the seller, either used the card herself or sold the same card number to another buyer.

Treasurer Frerichs offers one final piece of advice:

Treat a gift card like cash. If lost or stolen, report it to law enforcement. Contact the card’s issuer to determine if a replacement card is possible and at what cost.

Catch Mark Charvat on Q98.5 from 3 p.m to 7 p.m. Follow him on Twitter, and Facebook

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