US regulator orders banks to disclose hidden fees for gift cards

US regulator orders banks to disclose hidden fees for gift cards

The US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) has ordered banks that issue stored-value gift cards to tell consumers more about hidden charges, which in some cases can consume a card's entire balance.

The OCC says banks must put the expiration date on the front of the card and disclose any monthly maintenance, dormancy, usage or other fees. Banks also have to provide a phone number or Web site address on the cards to enable customers to obtain additional information.

Basic information that is essential to a gift card recipient's decisions about when and how to use the card should be provided on the gift card itself, or on a sticker affixed to the gift card, says the OCC.

The new guidance also advises national banks to avoid practices that could be "misleading to consumers", such as advertising cards as having no expiry date if monthly service or maintenance fees can consume the card balance. Similarly, customers should be informed if fees could consume the card balance before the stated expiration date.

Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, says the gift card market is growing rapidly and the terms and conditions of various cards can vary widely.

"It's very important that national banks engaged in this business adopt robust disclosure policies so that consumers understand what they are getting when they buy or receive a gift card," he adds.

A 2005/2006 study released by the the American Bankers Association (ABA) and Boston-based Dove Consulting last year found that gift cards accounted for around four per cent of all in-store purchases.

Consumers' use of pre-paid cards for at least one purchase per month in stores increased three-fold from 12% in 2003 to 32% in 2005 and around 12% of consumers plan to use gift/prepaid cards more often.

But earlier this year the US Treasury Department was reported to be planning a crackdown on pre-paid and stored value cards because they are increasingly being used for money laundering purposes.

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