Punta Gorda is home to some popular dining places. Like The Captain’s Table, Laishley Crab House and Harpoon Harry’s. All are locally-owned by Smuggler’s Enterprises, which issues company gift cards good at each of them.

R.J. Wetzel has quite a few of these cards. On the back, it explains the card is good only for food and beverage at any location. The cardholder is responsible for sales tax and gratuity.

Understanding this, the 72-year-old Rotonda West resident went for dinner at Laishley Crab House, presenting one of the gift cards when the check arrived.

“The server came back and said that they could not accept the card because their system had changed,” Wetzel explained. “She said as a courtesy, they would accept this one. I was stunned. What course of action I can take?”

There is a very effective course of action Wetzel can take in this case. But before I provided it, I reached out to Smuggler’s to see if there were any extenuating circumstances to explain why Wetzel would face losing hundreds of dollars’ worth of gift cards.

Smuggler’s Enterprises vice-president Kelly Evans Liscum immediately responded, confirming that Laishly Crab House had transferred its point-of-sale to a new system which didn’t recognize these older cards. She apologized for the incident and contacted Wetzel, converting each old card number to new Smuggler’s gift cards which can be used at any location.

I knew Wetzel’s gift cards would always be valid so long as Smuggler’s was in business.

That’s because, under a consumer-friendly Florida law, retail “closed-loop” gift cards or paper certificates — those sold by Florida stores and restaurants and only usable with the issuing merchant — can’t expire or have any post-sale charges or fees.

Contrast that with “open-loop” gift cards. Plastic or electronic, they’re issued by national financial institutions carrying VISA or MasterCard logos, for example, and valid at multiple, unaffiliated merchants accepting them.

Open-loop cards are governed under federal law. Funds can expire after five years. So long as the card is used at least once over a 12-month period, there can be no fees. However, if unused during that first year, fees for dormancy, processing or maintenance can be imposed, reducing the card’s value.

If Smuggler’s hadn’t quickly resolved this issue, my recommendation to Wetzel would have been to file a complaint with Florida’s Department of Consumer Services which enforces the state’s gift card law at 800-HELP-FLA (435-7352). It has the ability to impose an administrative fine not to exceed $100 for each violation.

But that’ll only work if a company’s still in business.

In 2018, Toys “R” Us joined a growing list of major retail companies filing bankruptcy over the last few years including The Limited, Linens-N-Things, Blockbuster, Circuit City and Borders. Under bankruptcy law, gift cards are considered unsecured and unprotected debt.

Take Borders. The Wall Street Journal reported the defunct retailer estimated customers never redeemed 17.7 million gift cards worth $210.5 million by the time it shut its doors in September 2011.

Don’t let that happen to you.

Regardless of the type, treat all gift cards and certificates like cash. Use them as quickly as possible. CEB TowerGroup estimates there’s roughly $1 billion in forgotten and unspent gift card balances.

And many gift cards still have magnetic strips — not chips — making them more vulnerable to fraud. If a gift card is lost or stolen issuers may or may not replace it. To be safe, Consumer Reports recommends writing down the card number, keeping it with the original purchase or gift receipt.

Finally, think twice before divulging any gift card information, especially if you’re thinking of selling it. The card can be quickly activated and spent before you can do anything.

And don’t count on the issuing gift card company for help. If you accessed the card, they’re not liable.

David Morris is the Sun’s consumer advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email david.morris@yoursun.com; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.

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