Vouchers and gift cards: Your rights

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Media captionJames Daley, from Which?, says people should keep vouchers

The first gift voucher - the humble book token - was first issued in 1932. Now the voucher and gift card industry has grown into a £4bn a year operation in the UK.

But with the increased popularity has come greater disappointment for those who find that their gift cards have become worthless.

A string of high-profile High Street casualties has brought the rights of consumers who have these tokens into sharp focus.

What products are we talking about here?

Vouchers, like the old-style book tokens, are available to buy. They include generic tokens, but are mostly vouchers for a specific chain of stores.

Recently, gift cards which can be pre-loaded with any amount of money have become more popular. These can be spent in stores. Some, but not all, also can be used for online purchases.

Many people may have found that the card that friends and family have bought them for Christmas or a birthday have become worthless.

Oh dear. Why is that?

A number of High Street stores have collapsed during the economic downturn.

When a retailer in this situation is trying to be saved or a buyer found, then the administrators decide whether gift cards and vouchers will be accepted. This is the case even though the shop doors might still be open.

For example, one troubled store - HMV - initially was not accepting or issuing gift cards, but has since said it would accept them in certain circumstances.

However, the administrators for DVD rental firm Blockbuster are honouring gift cards.

If a retailer folds, then voucher holders become creditors. They will get their money back if enough funds are available to divide up after all the business's assets are sold.

However, they are low on the list of the creditors, so are far less likely to get their money back than secured creditors.

The Trading Standards Institute says customers should lodge their claim as soon as possible after a retailer has gone into administration to increase their chances.

So I've no chance of getting any money back then?

Not necessarily. For example, when administrators were brought in at Comet, they initially said that gift cards and vouchers would not be accepted.

But then, having looked at the books, they decided to accept them. This was a relief to many who may have been saving them up to buy a high-value product.

However, the stores finally shut their doors just before Christmas 2012, and these cards were effectively useless once again.

In cases when chains are bought up by another business, gift cards and vouchers from the previous operation are sometimes accepted. For example, the outdoor stores Blacks and Millets were bought by JD Sports in what is known as a pre-pack administration. JD Sports still honours the vouchers bought before the deal was done.

Is there anything else I can do to claim the money?

It is worth checking whether the gift card or voucher was bought through a third party. There is no right to a refund, but the third-party still has a reputation to uphold and some customer loyalty to defend.

For example, some people had exchanged Tesco Clubcard vouchers for tokens to spend in Jessops, the camera store. When Jessops went into administration at the start of January, Tesco said it would refund these customers in full.

Another route is making a claim to a bank or credit card provider, if the gift cards or vouchers were bought using plastic.

Consumer law (section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, to be precise) means the person who bought the card or voucher may be able to make a claim to their credit card provider if it was a single purchase of over £100.

In theory, they may have a claim for a lesser amount under chargeback rules to their credit or debit card provider, but this is not always successful.

What should I do if I have one in the back of a drawer?

Check the expiry date and think about spending it. After all, industry figures suggest that £250m a year is wasted because these cards are unused.

If you are seriously worried that a store is going to go under, then it would be worth spending it.

And if you are thinking of buying a gift card or voucher, then it may be worth considering a gift of cash instead. After all, that can be spent anywhere.

What about faulty goods and warranties?

Clearly, shoppers will have a problem returning faulty goods if the shop no longer exists.

Warranties are often a different matter, though, because they may well be provided by a specialist provider that will still honour them.

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