New Gift Card Rules: Fed Cracks Down On Unfair Fees And Restrictions

05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve issued new rules on Tuesday 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, 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 fees can be charged 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.

The rules take effect Aug. 22.

Congress ordered the Fed to issue the new protections under a law enacted last year.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who championed the gift card crackdown in Congress, 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," Schumer 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."

The Fed received more than 230 letters weighing in on its proposal first unveiled in November.

Many individual consumers urged the Fed to ban all fees and to eliminate expiration dates so that people didn't lose any value on the cards.

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