Barb Annibale was looking forward to going back to Spa One in Punta Gorda and using an $80 Mother’s Day gift card. But before she could make a reservation, she received a disturbing email.

After eight years, the spa announced it was permanently closing.

“I tried to call and got a voice mail and left a message asking if they were refunding money for gift cards, but no response,” the 65-year-old Burnt Store Isles resident wrote me. “Do I have any recourse to get a refund?”

Unfortunately, Barb, you’re out of luck. Spa One joins the ranks of businesses including Toys “R” Us, The Limited, Linens-N-Things, Blockbuster, Circuit City, and Borders. Unredeemed gift cards are worthless if a company or merchant goes out of business.

Welcome to Gift Cards 101.

Whether physical, electronic, or mobile, National Retail Foundation holiday surveys report purchasers plan on buying three or four cards this holiday season at an average of $47 per card for a total of $27.5 billion. Gift cards remain the top choice among gift recipients.

If Spa One had stayed in business, Barb’s gift card would always be valid. 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, governed by federal law. 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.

Funds on these gift cards can expire after five years. So long as the card is used at least once over 12 months, 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.

When purchasing a physical gift card, be aware crooks may have tampered with the packaging or PIN label. Once a tampered card is purchased, loaded and activated by the victim, the thief quickly can drain it, especially if it can be used online.

So, avoid grabbing the first one hanging on a rack. Pick from the middle of the pack and carefully check the packaging.

“Don’t just look for the obvious dismantling of a card,” warns “Scammers work hard to be discreet, using razor blades to separate the envelopes or scratch the PIN labels off with care. If the card looks tampered with in any way, turn it in to the cashier and buy a different gift card.”

If you’re fortunate to receive a gift card, immediately check the balance by phone or online, if possible. A gift card receipt will help resolve any potential discrepancies.

Then, regardless of the type, treat all gift cards and certificates like cash, and drain them completely as quickly as possible. Remaining gift card balances are also easily forgotten. Industry experts estimate about $1 billion worth of gift cards purchased go unspent every year. Consumer Reports recommends keeping gift cards in your wallet — physical or mobile — for easy access.

And remember, gift cards only should be used to buy gifts, never to make any payment.

“Con artists favor these cards because they can get quick cash, the transaction is largely irreversible, and they can remain anonymous,” explains the Federal Trade Commission.

• • •

Tuesday, Dec. 3, is “Giving Tuesday.” Described as a “global generosity movement,” it signals the beginning of the end-of-year charitable season.

But before donating from your heart, use your head. Verify the charity is registered to solicit in Florida at, and click “Check-A-Charity” or call 800-HELP-FLA (435-7352). There, you’ll also see what percentage of donations go towards programs vs. fundraising expenses.

Valuable charitable giving tips are at

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


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