TRENTON, N.J. -- American Express has become the first company to pull its gift cards from New Jersey pharmacies, groceries and convenience stores rather than attempt to comply with a new wrinkle in the state's unclaimed property law.
AmEx spokeswoman Vanessa McCutchen told The Associated Press that the company began pulling gift cards sold through third-party retailers last week. As of Monday, the only way for New Jersey residents to buy AmEx gift cards, which can be used practically anywhere, is directly from the company.
New Jersey's Treasury Department will soon require sellers to obtain the ZIP code of everyone who buys a gift card. The state believes it can then lay claim to the value of any card not redeemed after two years, under a revision to the unclaimed property law.
John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, said the law poses serious administrative burdens to businesses and potential problems for consumers.
American Express Co. and the Retail Merchants Association are among the groups that have sued. The case is being litigated. However, an injunction against ZIP code collections was lifted in March.
"Retailers and gift card issuers like American Express have had serious concerns about the escheat law since it was passed nearly two years ago," Holub said. "I fear many retailers are likely to follow American Express's lead because the legal risk, technological burden and steep cost of complying is simply too great."
Treasury spokesman Andy Pratt said the new policy is a work-in-progress and not designed to deter businesses from operating in the state.
"We're working with industry groups to determine the best way to have merchants collect ZIP codes," he said. "We're not requiring it until we come up with a policy that is uniform and as least onerous as possible."
However, McCutchen said there is no way AmEx can ensure compliance with cards sold through third parties.
Pratt said that because of the lawsuit, Treasury hasn't built any revenue projection from unclaimed gift cards into the budget that starts July 1. The state is expecting to receive $1.5 million to $3 million a year from unclaimed travelers' checks, however, after getting $35 million initially from the previously untapped revenue stream.
The Legislature passed – and the governor signed – a law along with the budget two years ago that allows the state to claim the proceeds of gift cards bought in New Jersey if customers don't use them within two years. It saw unused gift cards, travelers' checks and money orders as a new revenue source and booked $79 million from the unclaimed property in fiscal 2011.
A lawsuit quickly followed and a U.S. District Court judge enjoined the collection of ZIP codes. Though the merits of the case have yet to be argued, the injunction was lifted after a subsequent hearing, paving the way for Treasury to issue guidance on new ZIP code collection requirements.
Before the legislative revision, if a gift card went unused, the issuing business kept the money. The 2010 law shortened the abandonment periods for money orders and travelers' checks and created a state claim on unused stored value cards, said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan of Middlesex County, one of a trio of Democrats sponsoring a bill to reverse the changes.
The Assembly passed the proposal in March, but no similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.
"The last thing businesses and consumers needs right now is laws targeting them," said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson of Bergen, a co-sponsor. "We should be promoting businesses and protecting consumers, not going after them, especially in this difficult economy."