Consumer Freedom

Card Sharks

Gift certificate rights?

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When Michigan state Rep. Fred Miller (D-Mount Clemens) got married in 2003, he received more gift cards than he knew what to do with. "I didn't want to carry them in my wallet all the time," he remembers. "Of course, some of them expired before I could use them." The issue stuck with him, and when a constituent told Miller how annoyed she was about expiring gift cards, he pondered a possible solution: What if gift cards lasted longer?

Miller's proposal became an amendment to the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm on July 12. Under the new law—which takes effect on November 1, just in time for the Christmas rush—gift cards sold in the state must last at least five years. That blue-and-gold Best Buy card slipped into your stocking this year can be redeemed in 2013 for the iPhone 13G: now with holographic conferencing!

The law passed with almost no objections, but the lobbyists who helped Miller are having second thoughts. "This started as a way to crack down on shady operators," says Mary Dechow, director of government and regulatory affairs for the 89-location in-state supermarket chain Spartan Stores. "There were businesses taking advantage of people by selling one-month cards without broadcasting the fact that they lasted one month. It was important to crack down on that. But whenever you get a legislature involved, you go after the good actors as well as the bad."

Dechow's objections to the law include the rapid compliance schedule and the excessiveness of the five-year expiration window. "If you haven't used a card after a year," she says, "you're not using it." Miller isn't worried about that. "People need to be confident," he says, "that when they buy a gift card, it's as good as cash." His next priority: tax breaks for companies that hire Michigan workers wherever possible.