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New Fed rules take aim at gift card fees

As more Americans bought or received gift cards, complaints about unexpected service fees or restrictions have risen. As more Americans bought or received gift cards, complaints about unexpected service fees or restrictions have risen. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press/File 2008)
Associated Press / March 24, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve issued new rules yesterday to protect Americans from getting stung by unexpected fees or restrictions on gift cards.

Gift cards have grown in popularity, with more than 95 percent of Americans having received or purchased them, the Fed said. And as usage has gone up, so too have complaints from people taken by surprise by fees that eat into the value of the cards as well restrictions on how long they’ll be good for.

Under the rules, which take effect Aug. 22, consumers must have at least five years to use the gift cards before they expire. The Fed also says service or inactivity fees can be imposed only under certain conditions, such as if the consumer hasn’t used the card for at least a year; if the consumer is given clear disclosures about them; and no more than one fee is charged a month.

Congress ordered the Fed to issue the protections under a law enacted last year. Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who championed the fee crackdown, wants faster implementation of the rules.

“Now that the new rules are finalized, we will work with the Fed to speed up the effective date rather than keep consumers at risk of being ripped off until next summer,’’ he said. “These new rules will curb the abusive fees and early expiration dates that can drain gift cards of their value before they are ever even used.’’