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How to replace a lost, stolen gift card (or return an unwanted one)

Many retailers give options; easiest one is to keep receipts

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The reason so many of us love gift cards -- they're a lot like cash -- is also the reason they can be hard to replace. If your card is lost or stolen, most retailers (see "Major retailers' gift card return and replacement policies" chart below) are sympathetic, but only if you can prove that you actually purchased, or were gifted, the card.

Replacing lost, stolen gift cards
To replace a card that's been lost or stolen, most important is "whether you have an activation receipt, you wrote down the gift card number, or you put the number in a mobile wallet," says Shelley Hunter, founder of GiftCardGirlfriend.com and a spokeswoman for GiftCards.com. "You need one of those three things for the retailer to look up a missing card. And if you don't have those things, you're out of luck."

How to replace a lost or stolen gift card

If you held on to your receipt, the generous soul who gave you the gift card can produce one, or if you know the card number, contact the retailer immediately. Most maintain toll-free numbers (available on the store's website) staffed by customer service representatives who can cancel the card and work on issuing you a new one. Some retailers, like Simon Malls, can replace cards over the phone as long as you know the gift card number; others, like Starbucks, replace a lost gift card you registered online.

If it's a store card, you may not even have to pay for a replacement fee, but that's less likely with bank-issued gift cards. American Express now offers to replace lost or stolen gift cards for free if you have the original card number, but replacing a Wells Fargo Visa card costs $7.50 and SunTrust charges $5 to replace a MasterCard gift card. If your bank wants to charge a replacement fee, ask about simply getting your money refunded instead, which may be free.

Even if you never wrote down the number and the receipt is long gone, you're not entirely out of luck. If you already used the gift card to shop online, your data may still be stored in your account -- and you can spend it down pronto. Otherwise, consider trying to get reimbursement from PayPal or your credit card company if you ordered a card online and it never arrived, or replacing a gift card stolen from your home through your homeowner's or renter's insurance coverage. (Check your policy for coverage details.)

Steps to take now
Even with a receipt in hand, it's a hassle to cancel and then replace a lost or stolen gift card. Here's how to keep your cards safer now:

  • Keep records of your gift card info in Your Wallet Recovery KitThe Kit -- a series of forms on which you can record information about your gift cards, as well as your credit cards, debit cards and anything else in your wallet -- was created by CreditCards.com and is meant to help you be prepared in case of disaster. It lays out what information you need to write down and store away now. It even helps you find who to contact after your wallet goes missing -- and what to say when you speak with them.  
  • Register your card with the retailer. Some retailers, including Starbucks, Land of Nod, and Crate and Barrel, offer automatic balance protection and hassle-free card replacement to cardholders who register their gift cards with the store online. There can be bonus benefits, too. Starbucks, Cosi and Tully's Coffee Shops treat registered gift cards like a rewards card. As customers swipe it for purchases, they earn points redeemable for free coffee refills, sandwiches or scones. 
  • Track your card in a mobile wallet. Stow card numbers in an app like GoWallet, Gyft or MyWallet Pro, where they'll stay safely password-protected until you need them. Some apps also let you check balances, remind you to use your cards or allow mobile gift card purchases with your phone.
  • Shop online. To make a purchase online, you only need the gift card number, which could help if you misplaced the actual plastic. Walmart.com offers a "Save Your Gift Card" option that allows customers to input gift card numbers once, then make online purchases later.
  • Use your card quickly. Although fewer gift cards go unspent than ever before, according to research by CEB TowerGroup, there's still over $1 billion in unspent gift cards floating around. "People hold on to these cards and forget where they put them," says Kuadey, CEO and founder of GiftCardRescue.com. "Using the card immediately not only prevents it from getting lost, but protects you if the company goes bankrupt."
  • Safeguard your card from fraud. Even if you have the card itself, someone could steal your balance. High-tech fraudsters scan or copy card numbers in stores, then spend the money online as soon as the card is activated, leaving you with a worthless piece of plastic. When you purchase a gift card, search for scratches or signs of tampering. Or avoid the problem altogether by purchasing e-certificates from online retailers such as Amazon.com.

Options for using unwanted gift cards
While you're trying to safeguard most of your gift cards, there are others you can't get rid of fast enough, usually because the card is for a store you don't like or can't get to. Virtually no retailers allow you to trade in a gift card for cash. The one exception: if you have only a few bucks left on your card. According to research from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a handful of states, including California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington, require retailers to return small-dollar remnants to consumers in cash. The law, however, generally only applies when you have less than $5 on your gift card (and some states limit it to $1).

That doesn't mean you're stuck with an unwanted card. Try these ideas:

  • Sell the card. A growing array of websites -- GiftCardRescue.com, Raise.com, CardCash.com, Cardpool.com, ABCGiftCards.com and Giftah.com, to name a few -- form the massive secondary gift card market. They'll buy a card you don't want, verify the balance and send you a check or a PayPal deposit for up to 92 percent of the card's value, but on average more like 75 percent. To get the most cash for your card, use GiftCardGranny.com to compare the going rates and terms at several secondary gift card resellers. A little due diligence is required here. "For users selling a gift card for the first time, you want to read reviews on the gift card resellers online" and investigate how they protect both buyers and sellers, says Kendal Perez, a GiftCardGranny.com representative. Strong consumer protection policies make eBay a fairly safe bet these days, but avoid Craigslist.org, which is notorious for gift card sale fraud.
  • Swap it. PlasticJungle.com abandoned its gift card sales in favor of trades: your gift card for either My Best Buy Points, United Airlines miles or a CVS gift card. Or simply trade with someone you know in real life: their $50 Home Depot card for your $50 Target card.
  • Donate it. Offer an unused gift card to a local charity or school, which can use it to buy supplies, offer it to needy clients or sell it to raise cash for their cause. Or mail your unused or semi-used cards to the Atlanta-based nonprofit organization Gift Card Giver, which shares them with organizations and people in need.
MAJOR RETAILERS' GIFT CARD RETURN, REPLACEMENT POLICIES
  Retailer Will the store replace a lost or stolen card? How do I
get started?
Can you get a refund for a gift card?
Target Yes, with receipt Call 877-848-4483 or visit the store nearest you Yes, in line with usual refund rules. Refund in same payment as purchase
Starbucks Yes, if card is registered at Starbucks.com  Call 800-STARBUC or visit the store nearest you or Starbucks.com Yes, with receipt. Refund check mailed in 3-4 weeks
Walmart Yes, with receipt  Call Walmart customer service at 800-411-7942 No, except as required by law
Best Buy Yes, with receipt Call 888-716-7994 or visit the store nearest you Yes, in line with usual refund rules. Refund in same payment as purchase
Toys R Us Yes, with receipt Call 800-TOYSRUS or visit the store nearest you No, except as required by law
Old Navy Yes, with receipt Call 800-OLD-NAVY or visit the store nearest you Yes, in line with usual refund rules. Refund in same payment as purchase
Amazon Yes, you can resend a lost or stolen gift card Contact Amazon with your order number (if possible), the purchaser's name and recipient's name, plus the physical or email address to which the gift card was sent. The original card will be canceled and a new one reissued  No, except as required by law
Home Depot Yes, with receipt Call 800-553-3199 or visit the store nearest you Check in stores or at HomeDepot.com 
Chart data accurate as of Dec. 24, 2013. Do you know of a change? Write editors@creditcards.com
See related: Gift card scammers skirt security with new tricks, Using gift card exchange sites to stretch your holiday budget, Gift cards chart 2013, 8 creative ways to give gift cards

Updated: January 13, 2014



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