Gift cards can become worthless when their issuers fail. Yet many people don't realize that gift card funds aren't guaranteed. A recent survey from Archstone Consulting found that 70 percent of respondents did not recognize that bankrupt retailers not honoring gift cards is a problem.
When made aware of the issue, "they still weren't that concerned," says Mike Unger, principal at Archstone Consulting.
The finding, he says, upsets him. "Frankly, given what's going on right now in this environment and with retailers struggling, I personally would not buy a gift card from a company that I thought might see bankruptcy days ahead of it because you don't need a bankruptcy judge telling you they're not going to honor your gift card," he says.
Here's what can happen if your gift card issuer goes under.
When a retailer files for bankruptcy -- either Chapter 11 for reorganization or Chapter 7 for liquidation -- its gift cards may or may not prove worthless.
First of all, it's not a given that the card will become unredeemable when the merchant files for Chapter 11. "It's up to the retailer. They ask permission to the court whether or not they may continue to accept the gift cards," says Michelle Jun, staff attorney for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.
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For example, when Sharper Image filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2008, it first told the court it would no longer honor its own gift cards. Later on, the company asked if it could accept them in cases where cardholders spent at least twice the value of the card in one transaction.
"The problem is that consumers are unaware of the status of whether or not their gift cards will continue to be accepted," says Jun.
If the retailer cannot accept gift cards or files for Chapter 7, your only hope of getting any money out of the card is to file as an unsecured creditor in the bankruptcy proceeding. Contact the retailers customer service department for instructions on how to file.
Gift cardholders don't get paid first when assets are distributed in bankruptcy. Secured creditors collect first, administrative costs come out and then "whatever's left is left for this pro-rata distribution to the holders of unsecured claims," says Sarah Jane Hughes, a university scholar and fellow in commercial law at the Indiana University School of Law.
A "pro-rata" distribution is a percentage arrived at by dividing the assets available for distribution to unsecured creditors by the amount owed to them. The unsecured creditor would get that fraction times the amount of his or her claim. "So that if you had a $1,000 gift card and the pro-rata percentage was 5 percent, at the end when they distributed assets, you'd get $50."