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Shelley Hunter

What to Do When Your Gift Card has a Zero Balance

10 things to check when you try to spend a gift card that doesn’t have any money on it.

gift card with a zero balance

My house is swimming with gift cards. As the Gift Card Girlfriend, I have hundreds of zero-balance gift cards laying around my office. When I redeem a gift card at the store, I always ask to have the plastic back so I can add it to my stash of used gift cards at home. Occasionally, however, I forget to clear the used plastic out of my purse and accidentally try to use a zero-balance gift card a second time. (That never works, by the way.) Although it can be startling to hear the cashier tell me that a gift card is empty, I usually know that the error is mine whenever it happens. If you are told that a gift card has a zero balance, however, you might want to check the following things before accepting that the gift card has no value.

10 Things to Do When Your Gift Card has No Value

If a cashier tells you that a gift card has a zero balance, check the following items before accepting that the gift card truly has no money on it:

1. Show Card to the Cashier

With so many payment choices available, including both physical and mobile options, it’s a good idea to tell the cashier which method of payment you’re using before handing over a card. Since cashiers are more likely to know the nuances of their cash registers (and various types of cash registers handle gift cards differently), getting the cashier involved early can ensure the card is used properly. A gift card with money on it could show a zero balance instead if the transaction is run incorrectly.

2. Ask What the Error Message Is

“Sometimes a cashier will say, ‘there‚Äôs no money on this card,’ when the gift card actually isn’t working for a different reason.”

Don’t assume that a gift card handed back doesn’t have any money on it. The gift card may have been declined for another reason such as the cashier ran the card incorrectly (see above), the gift card never got activated (see below) or the dollar value being charged against the card is greater than the card’s load value. If the cashier can give you additional information, you will be one step closer to solving the mystery of why the gift card didn’t work. Sometimes cashiers simply say, “there’s no money on this card” when, in fact, it’s not working for a different reason.

3. Ask For the Manager

If the gift card isn’t working properly and you’re fairly certain there should be a balance on the gift card, ask if a manager can help with the transaction. New cashiers may not know proper procedures for running gift cards, and in fairness to those cashiers, some instructions are counter-intuitive. For example, a bank-issued gift card that says “prepaid debit” on the front, may need to be run as a “credit” transaction if the customer doesn’t have a Personal Identification Number (PIN) to go along with the card. A new store employee might not know that.

4. Check the PIN

If you opt to run a gift card as a debit transaction, you’ll need to know the PIN associated with that card. If you don’t have a PIN or enter the PIN incorrectly, the gift card will be declined. In this case, the cashier may indicate that the card isn’t working when, in fact, it just needs to be run using a different method. If you have a PIN, check to see that you’ve entered the number correctly. If you don’t have a PIN or can’t remember the correct PIN, tell the cashier to run the card as a “credit” transaction.

5. Make Sure the Gift Card is Activated

An increasingly common way to reduce gift card fraud is to require gift cards be activated before they can be used. Check the back of the gift card (or any gift card packaging you have) to see if activation steps are required. If so, take care of it before using the card. A gift card that is not activated will definitely not be accepted at the cash register.

6. Ask for the Balance and Transaction History

Although a store or restaurant would not likely be able to tell you the balance of a bank-issued gift card (since the gift card is not on their closed-loop system), a merchant should be able to provide a balance for any gift card issued by the store. In addition to obtaining the balance, you might be able to get a transaction history as well. Seeing where the money has been spent could help you remember that you’re the one who spent it. If you don’t recognize the transactions, then escalate the problem to customer service. While not commonplace, it’s possible to steal the value of a gift card without taking the physical plastic. (If you can’t talk to customer service directly, check the back of the card for a telephone number to call or a website to visit.)

7. Contact Customer Service

When you’ve exhausted all other options and you’re certain that you haven’t redeemed the gift card yourself, take the card to customer service and ask for help. Be prepared to be a little tenacious in resolving the problem since trying to get money from a card that never had any could be a common scam. If you bought the gift card yourself, you may need to prove you did so by producing an activation receipt, credit card statement or some other detail that will help the customer service representative determine if the gift card got activated correctly, got used by someone else or isn’t working for some other reason. The more information you can provide, the better.

8. Contact the Card Issuer

“The grocery store can look into the original purchase and the activation process. The clothing store can tell you when and where the gift card has been used. But neither party knows all of those details.”

Since gift cards are available at a variety of locations (e.g. you can buy a clothing store gift card at a grocery store, gas station or from a website), the merchant on the card may refer you to the company who sold you the card in the first place. The reverse could happen as well–the grocery store that sold you the gift card may tell you to contact the merchant on the card instead. Although disheartening, remember that each party only has access to half of the information. The grocery store can look into the original purchase and the activation process. The clothing store can tell you when and where the gift card has been used. But neither party knows all of those details. So dig in and be prepared to get everyone talking to each other. Since both parties have a vested interest in cutting down on gift card fraud and in making sure gift cards are activated properly, you should be able to get help resolving the problem to your satisfaction.

9. Contact the Giver

Although you may not feel comfortable telling the giver that the card you received isn’t working, I strongly encourage you to do so. If I gave someone a card that didn’t work, I would certainly want to know about it because otherwise we are both victims–the recipient is without a gift and I would have thrown money away without even knowing it. Ask the giver if he or she still has the activation receipt or can provide any other purchase information. Again, if it were me, I’d probably want to take over the investigation myself so the recipient (who I intended to treat) isn’t burdened with the chore of finding out what happened and working to replace the gift card.

10. Talk to Your Credit Card Company

If the gift card issuer is unwilling to investigate, unable to solve the problem or unwilling to compensate you for the lost value, see if your credit card consumer protection plan can be put to use. If you purchased the gift card with a credit card, the bank may be willing to get involved and reimburse you for the value of the card.

If, after checking these things, the gift card still isn’t working, the problem may be due to where you are trying to use the card versus the dollar value of the card. Bank-issued gift cards, for example, work best when used inside a gas station rather than outside at the gas pump. These cards can also pose a problem when used at a restaurant and even sometimes online. Check this post for other reasons why your gift card isn’t working at various locations and try this blog post for why a gift card might not work online. If you’ve checked all those things and your gift card still isn’t working, then maybe it’s like one of those movie cards in my purse. It has a zero balance because it’s already been used.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Shelley Hunter, Gift Card Girlfriend

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