A Territory Ahead gift certificate left behind

When Ed Probst tries to redeem an 11-year-old gift certificate, the company stonewalls him. How do you get a business to honor a debt from 2001?

Question: I was doing my annual end-of-the-year file clean-out and found a $200 gift certificate from 2001 from Territory Ahead. There is no expiration date.

In December, I went online to place an order. Of course, there is a spot on the checkout page to enter a gift card number, but it would not accept the number. So I called the 800 number to place the order and gave the gift certificate number to the agent, who was confused. So she had to ask her supervisor if it was acceptable.

After a few minutes she was back on the line and walked through the order with me and then said everything was all set. Stupid me, I never asked for a confirmation number. I waited a few days and never got a confirming email.

A few days later, I called again and got the nicest person, who took my order again. Then, when we got to the gift certificate part, she went offline to check with her supervisor. She quickly got back to me and said they had to check their records to confirm the certificate had not been used before but she would call me back the next day to confirm. That was a month ago. Can you help out on this one? — Ed Probst, Wauwatosa, Wis.

Answer: Gift certificates are often regulated by your state, but in your case, Wisconsin doesn’t address the usability of the funny money. Here’s a list of relevant gift certificate statutes. So if the certificate says it doesn’t expire, you should be able to redeem it.

Even though your $200 still should have been good, it is worth significantly less than it was in 2001. The reason? Inflation. Once you factor that, you’re getting only about $155 of buying power. Also, there’s no guarantee Territory Ahead — or any company, for that matter — will be in business more than a decade from now. For these reasons, you probably should have used the scrip immediately instead of hiding it away in your drawer.

I shouldn’t talk. I probably have several gift cards tucked away in my drawers. Which reminds me, when I’m done writing this column, I’m going to rummage through them. You never know what you’ll find.

Territory Ahead owed you a fast and honest answer to the question, “Can I use this certificate?” After you sent me a photo of the certificate, I believe the answer should have been “yes.”

Most of your interaction with the company had taken place by phone, though. Phone calls work well when you need information, but they don’t provide hard proof of a conversation. So when a representative assured you that you could use the $200 gift certificate, getting that in writing was really important. And you’re right — even a confirmation number would have been helpful.

I suggested that you send a brief, polite email and a photo of your certificate to Territory Ahead through its website. You did.

Two weeks later, you received an email saying the certificate was valid along with a number for a replacement gift card. You quickly placed an order and the online form accepted the new number. Case closed.

Who benefits more from gift certificates?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • LDVinVA

    Give me a break – 11 years? I don’t think the company was under any obligation to honor it.

  • naoma

    Eleven years? I had one that was only a year or so old and it was INVALID. IT was from SEARS!!!!! And, “had expired.” SEARS????

  • Fishplate

    Why not? A product was paid for, and never delivered.

  • EdB

    Give me a break. The company said there was no expiration date so of course they were obligated to honor it. 11 days or 11 years. Doesn’t matter. No expiration means it doesn’t expire.

  • EdB

    Did the card have “no expiration” printed on it? If not, you have to check the T&C for the card to find out if there was an expiration. But then, we are talking about Sears. Not exactly the best example of customer care out there.


    Took the Territory Ahead a bit of time but they accepted what was clearly a valid gift certificate. The best rule of thumb is to use the certificate as soon as it arrives. No forgetting, no expiration and no balance maintenance fees at all!

  • Mark

    Gift certificates are a way of taking cash and making it less valuable. I didn’t make that up, but I completely agree.

  • Mel65

    I’m glad he got it honored, but frankly very surprised! I received a $300 gift certificate to a local Spa last Christmas for a “Queen for a Day” spa day package. In June, I went to schedule it and they informed they were no longer “X Spa” they were now “Y Spa” having been bought and under new management and would not be honoring my gift certificate. I asked “But, if you bought X Spa, didn’t you also buy their outstanding liabilities, etc…?” They basically shrugged. I would have been happy if they’d offered to honor 50% of the value, but ended up being out the entire $300 due to their refusal to budge :( Needless to say, Karma made me very happy when THAT spa then went under a few months later :)

  • Daddydo

    Gift Certificates are great for a company that is solid and reputable to issue. It’s called “float”. The gift certificate sounds great for the consumer, but cash flow is incredible for the issuer. Think about what interest at that time could be made on $200.00, along 1000 other issued gift cards. At our little pretzel store, we would average $5000.00 a year is gift certificates, no expiration, no questions asked. At Christmas, that number goes up to $10,000.00. I love it.

  • emanon256

    Having done system work for companies that issue gift cards, and begin a consumer my self, I wish I could vote for both.

    They are bad for consumers because consumers loose them, inflation effects them while the company makes interest, and often times consumers spend more money that they would have to get the value out of the card.

    They are bad for the company because they have to continually account for these liabilities on their books. Smaller business don’t have enough volume to invest this money, end up spending it on operating costs, and then have financial difficulties when they are redeemed later. This can really reak havoc on moth to month accounting for small businesses because they may have no card redeemed on month, and many the next. With a small business, its very hard to predict when they are used. Also, when they are electronic, changing the point of sale system usually involves a lot of custom conversion code to move the gift certificates to the new system and they usually get assigned new numbers (like in the OPs case) and this programing is expensive, and sometimes buggy.

    So my vote sort of bad for consumers, sort of bad for small businesses, amazingly awesome for big corporate businesses who never change their POS system.

    In the OPs case, if it had no expiration date, and the law doesn’t address it, then it better still be valid. I am glad the finally accepted it, but it should not have been that hard. Bad customer service is rampant these days, it should have worked the first time.

  • emanon256

    I miss the good old days of Sears. They used to be honorable, knowledgeable, and reputable. Now they are among the worst in the business.

  • Dutchess

    Actually, yes. In CA and other states they’re not allowed to expire. How would you like it if you went into the bank and they said “your account? It’s been over 11 years we have no obligation to honor that” and just took your money. Now there’s laws which force banks to eshceat unclaimed property to protect this kind of thing from happening, I don’t see why gift cards should be any different.

  • Joshua

    Of course they should be under an obligation, both a legal and a moral obligation, to honor the gift certificate. (Unless the certificate had a stated expiration date, or the company had gotten its gift certificate liabilities discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding.) They had 11 years to earn interest on the $200 that was originally paid for the gift certificate. Should the company just get to keep the $200 that was paid for the gift certificate back in 2001 without honoring the certificate it had issued in exchange?

  • bodega3

    Before CA passed the law stating that gift certificates and gift cards can not expire, we always had a one year expiration date on our gift certificates. Keeping track of these for 11 years would be a PITA for a business. The recipient is lucky the business is still around to be able to use it. In this day and age, if you get a card or certificate, you should use it as soon as you can as you could lose it if the business closes.

  • DavidYoung2

    Had an ‘expired’ card issue long ago that got resolved real quickly. Simply say, “Oh, so you sent that money to the State of xxxx under their escheat laws? No problem, I’ll get it back from them.”

    See, states have this funny law that if any property is abandoned or not claimed by it’s rightful owner, it is ‘held for safekeeping’ by that state. It’s called “escheat” and states are sitting on billions in unclaimed property, but you CAN claim it back.

    In my case, I knew the issuer didn’t send it to the state and decided to keep it, but they certainly didn’t want somebody bringing that up with the state, who would force them to remit it and all similar items, plus interest and penalties for failure to do so, so they just ‘made a one-time exception’ instead. Could cost them millions, and they’re not going to risk it over a $100.00

    Off topic, you can usually see if there is any unclaimed property held by your state in your name on-line. Just search for “unclaimed property” and your state.

  • DavidYoung2

    They did the right thing, and perhaps the delay was justified because they either changed computer systems or that certificate number was purged from their on-line database after such a long time. I can see where it would take a couple days to go back and try to find the records from something 11 years old.

  • Cat

    Thats why I don’t buy gift certificates. I give cash. It not much of a gift if you are forcing the person to shop at places they don’t frequent and buy things they have no interest in. And I don’t like getting them for the same reasons. I have received gift certificates for places that have no business in my state or the nearest store is hours away.
    STOP lining the pockets of business that “love” to take your money and do nothing to earn it. STOP buying the wasteful things!

  • bodega3

    And I give them as I don’t like giving cash. We give our employees gift certificates on their birthdays, so we buy a lot of certificates!

  • dave3029

    Like anything else, you have to check the laws of your specific state. In Ohio, gift cards/certificates are specifically exempted from being turned over to the escheat divisions – – so once they expire, you have no recourse.

  • dave3029

    I’ve seen this before as well. That’s why many businesses structure an assets-only sale. Tney then assume none of the liabilities of the previous business. So X Spa sells just their assets to Y Spa. Then Y Spa gets all the benefits (including any money owed to X Spa), but none of the debts of X Spa.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The business will certainly try that approach. It works with various levels of success. If Spa Y purchases the assets of the previous business at less than fair market value, or if the owners are substantially the same, then it will be treated as merely a continuation of the original spa and will be liable for the debts.

  • LDVinVA

    I still say: if a missing person can be declared dead after 7 years, a gift certificate should not be valid after 11 years!

  • EdB

    Apples and oranges. Comparing a gift certificate to a person? That idea is just plain crazy.

  • Joshua

    LDV: I don’t understand. Do you own a store that issued a lot of gift certificates years ago that are still outstanding and you want to be able to write them off? I don’t know what other motivation you could have for your anti-consumer stand on this issue.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I don’t bother with store cards, I get an Amazon gift card, so they can get pretty much anything they want.

  • bodega3

    We only give gift cards or certificates for local stores. We try and keep the money and tax dollars in our small community. I am not a fan of Amazon knowing how they run things behind the scenes. Plus I have been finding prices lower directly even with shipping charges for the same item, from the same store or company because of what Amazon makes a merchant pay for.

  • PsyGuy

    I never use gift cards, and I dont give cash either. What kind of “gift” is currency (in whatever form)? I know teenagers dont want gifts they just want cash, but everyone I get gifts for either gets an actual gift, or they get a card. My company doesnt give “gifts” either, they give bonuses, and in those cases its actual money,

  • EdB

    I was just watching on the local news here a story about a woman who found a certificate for a ride in the Goodyear blimp that her sister purchased 50 years ago. Goodyear honored it without any hesitation.

  • LDVinVA

    Never owned or even worked in a store in my life – and I am retired, and am a consumer. I just think it is unreasonable to ask a store to honor a gift certificate issued so long ago. My opinion, I am free to voice it, and you are free to have your own opinion!

  • Joe Farrell

    I’m not seeing the reason for your opinion . . . can you provide a reason other than ‘its what I think’ because that is like any other opinion, meaningless without a reason . . .

    Lets say you gave a merchant $200 . . . do you expect them to give you $200 worth of goods for it? If they do not put an expiration date on a gift card should it be valid essentially forever?

  • Joe Farrell

    such is your opinion, does not make it either right or legally enforceable –