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NJ wants to collect on unredeemed gift cards

TRENTON, N.J. — Remember that gift card you got from Aunt Francine but never spent? New Jersey would be more than happy to take it off your hands.

The state will soon begin requiring gift card sellers to obtain ZIP codes from buyers so it can claim the value of cards not redeemed after two years. At least one major seller, American Express, has pulled its cards from shelves rather than attempt to comply.

Shoppers would still be able to redeem a card after two years, if it hasn't expired. But if the state has already laid claim to the money, businesses might have to jump through administrative hoops to get reimbursement — and therefore stop selling gift cards altogether to avoid the hassle.

"No other state in the country requires this of retailers," said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, which represents 3,500 retailers and is one of three groups to sue over the law. "The loser is going to be the consumer, because gift cards from some of their favorite retailers may no longer be available."

There is no way American Express Co. can ensure compliance with cards not bought directly from AmEx, company spokeswoman Vanessa McCutchen told The Associated Press. So the company began pulling gift cards in New Jersey last week.

By Monday, there were none left at groceries, pharmacies or convenience stores in the state. The only way for New Jersey residents to buy AmEx gift cards, which can be used practically anywhere, is directly from the company.

The state saw unused gift cards, travelers' checks and money orders as potential new revenue sources and projected the state could get $79 million in the 2011 fiscal year. Without information about the consumer, the value of the unused card would belong to the company.

The Legislature passed the law along with the budget two years ago. Lawsuits quickly followed, and the collection of ZIP codes was temporarily suspended.

The merits of the cases, since consolidated into one, have yet to be argued. But the injunction has been lifted, paving the way for the state Treasury Department to issue guidance on new ZIP code collection requirements. The Assembly passed a proposal in March to reverse the changes, but the Senate has so far not acted.

"The last thing businesses and consumers needs right now is laws targeting them," said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, of Teaneck, a co-sponsor of the reversal. "We should be promoting businesses and protecting consumers, not going after them, especially in this difficult economy."

The new policy is a work in progress and not designed to deter businesses from operating in the state, said Treasury spokesman Andy Pratt.

"We're working with industry groups to determine the best way to have merchants collect ZIP codes," he said. "We're not requiring it until we come up with a policy that is uniform and as least onerous as possible."

Retailers may have to decide whether to spend the time and money to upgrade their point-of-purchase sales system so that a ZIP code can be attached to a transaction for later tracking, said Jim Burns, a Newark lawyer whose firm is representing the Retail Merchants Association.

"The law has put retailers at the precipice of some troubling decisions," Burns said.

Consumer advocate Jennifer Kim, of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, said she's also worried about the state adding a restriction that could make gift cards less consumer-friendly.

"Our concern is whether there will be adequate disclosure ahead of time, that consumers and buyers will know up front what the rules are so they don't get taken advantage of," Kim said.

New Jersey appears to be the only state trying to collect data at purchases time to help collect unused gift card balances, Burns said.

About half the states have some type of law dealing with the collection of unclaimed property, according to data published in January by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those that do, few seek to recover the full amount left on a gift card rather than a portion of the balance, and most allow three or five years before making a claim.

In Texas, the name and address of the purchaser is presumed to be the state comptroller in Austin if the owner's identity is unknown, allowing that state to collect more unclaimed balances.

Because of the litigation, New Jersey isn't counting on receiving any revenue from unclaimed gift cards into the budget that starts July 1, Pratt said. The state is expecting to receive $1.5 million to $3 million a year from unclaimed travelers' checks.