Under new B.C. law, gift cards won't expire
Province will also prohibit most fees

Lindsay Kines and Jeff Rud
Times Colonist

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Companies will face penalties if their gift cards break new B.C. rules.

Letting that Christmas giftcard languish in your sock drawer for months on end will no longer cost you, thanks to legislation introduced yesterday by the provincial government.

The Public Safety and Solicitor General (Gift Card Certainty) Statutes Amendment Act will prohibit companies from placing expiry dates or levying service charges on their giftcards, ensuring B.C. consumers get full value for those products, said Solicitor General John van Dongen.

The multi-pronged bill also boosts B.C.'s two-year-old Civil Forfeiture Act by enabling the province to seize and sell the vehicles of those found to be driving impaired or street-racing if a civil court determines their illegal activities "could have caused serious injury or death."

It also allows organizers of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, corporate sponsors and national Olympic committees to establish temporary liquor-licensed venues before and during the Games.

News of the giftcard legislation pleased the Consumers' Association of Canada. National and B.C. president Bruce Cran estimates that nearly $1 billion is lost annually by Canadian consumers in unredeemed cards.

The law, which will come into force this fall, will require businesses to inform customers about how giftcards can be used, redeemed and replaced. It will prohibit expiry dates and fees "except in limited circumstances."

"There is a growing consumer concern that the value of their giftcard purchase is being eroded very unfairly and hence the government felt it was important to develop this legislation," van Dongen said in an interview.

Companies in violation will face administrative penalties and if a customer is charged a prohibited fee he or she will get a refund. Giftcards that have been issued prior to the legislation will not be subject to it.

"It's a step in the right direction,'' Cran said of the B.C. bill, which follows similar legislation by Ontario. "From the consumer's point of view, it is an actual cash deposit they've put down."

But Cran said the devil is in the details. He is keen to know under what circumstances fees can be charged or expiry dates enforced. In Ontario, cards issued by shopping malls and credit card companies have been exempt from the regulation, which has caused problems, he said.

The B.C. legislation allows for exemptions set out by regulation, but those have yet to be determined. A ministry spokesman said those could include - but not be limited to - promotional cards given free to consumers by a business or charity or customized giftcards that might carry the purchaser's picture.

Exemptions will be determined through consultation with the retail sector and consumers. Van Dongen said retailers have generally been neutral or supportive of the legislation.

The change to the civil forfeiture bill will allow for more liberal seizure and sale of vehicles. The current legislation does not apply if the illegal activity is stopped by police before causing harm.

People who drive drunk or street race should know they can lose their vehicle even if they don't hurt anybody, van Dongen said, adding he hopes this makes B.C. streets safer.

Changes also allow seizure of other "instruments of unlawful activity" such as property or equipment used to grow marijuana even if the crop has yet to be harvested or sold.

NDP critic Mike Farnworth said he was pleased to see the giftcard legislation introduced as it mirrors a bill introduced by Opposition MLA Guy Gentner in 2007. He was also supportive of the civil forfeiture changes, although he said cars used for street-racing should not be resold but instead crushed.