Before you buy, pick your gift cards carefully

FRESNO, Calif.

Gift cards are definitely better than they used to be. New regulations have eliminated some fees, so you can't be charged if you don't use the card within the first year. And cards can't expire for five years.

But even with new protections, there are still drawbacks. The new rules only apply to merchant and bank-issued cards. So if you have a reloadable card or any card not marketed as a gift card, you'll want to pay close attention to those terms.

Bank-issued cards are convenient because you can use them almost anywhere, but they come with fees. The Visa Gift Card from U.S. Bank costs $3.95 if you get it from a branch or $6.95 if you buy it online. And after 12 months you're charged a $2.50 inactivity fee if you don't use it.

Even charity gift cards come with fees. Consumer Reports found one that charged a $4.95 transaction fee, and it charged 3 percent to transfer the funds.

But if a gift card is still the way you want to go, retail store cards usually have little or no fees. You just want to make sure the person you are buying for likes to shop in the store.

Consumer Reports says when you give a card, add a copy of the terms and policies and the receipt, which is often needed if the card is lost or stolen.

But better yet, why not give cash or a check? That way people can shop wherever they want, whenever they want, no strings attached.

If you receive a gift card, Consumer Reports advises you to check out the terms. Check whether you have to register it in case it's lost or stolen. And Consumer Reports says put it right in your wallet instead of a desk drawer, so it's handy. And last but not least, spend it as soon as possible, especially these days. You don't want to be holding a gift card for a company that goes out of business.

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