If you received a gift certificate through Simply Certificates this Christmas, pay close attention to its expiration date.
Sold at Walden Galleria, the Boulevard, McKinley and Eastern Hills malls, and at the Wyoming Valley Mall in Pennsylvania, Simply Certificates can be redeemed at dozens of locally owned restaurants, spas and salons in Western New York.
But the ones sold at kiosks this Christmas are stamped with an expiration date for 2021. Federal law requires companies to honor gift cards (or certificates) for at least five years from the date they were issued.
According to a new policy that showed up on the company's website last week, you can have the certificates reissued after they expire, but only after paying a $5 restocking fee per certificate plus $4.95 for postage and handling. You're also required to send the certificates back to the company by certified mail, further driving up the cost by a minimum of $3.50.
So, theoretically, you could pay at least $13.45 to have a $10 certificate reissued.
Simply Certificates did not return a request to further clarify the policy.
And that's only part of it.
When I went to a Simply Certificates kiosk on Christmas Eve to ask about the details on expiration dates, something odd happened.
The man who was working introduced himself as Richard Harris and told me he couldn't comment, but that he would give my card to the company owner, Bob Lynn.
I asked to see a certificate so that I could read the fine print, but he didn't have any, he said. He was waiting for someone to deliver them, he told me.
I asked him when they might arrive so I could wait or come back but, no, he said, the person was bringing them from Pennsylvania (where the company is headquartered) so it would be quite a while and there was no way to tell when they might arrive, he said.
I walked to another part of the mall and started talking to two other people who worked in the mall and did not want to be identified, asking about the kiosk.
"Why don't you go talk to the owner?" one of them said. "He's here today."
"He is?" I said. "Bob Lynn? Where?"
"Right there," the person said, pointing to the man who had identified himself as Richard Harris.
"Richard Harris" was cashing out a customer, selling the Simply Certificates that must have suddenly arrived when I stepped away.
I went back and the man admitted that he was Bob Lynn, but said he wasn't the owner, just a manager. He still couldn't comment, he said.
When asked, Lynn said the certificates comply with state and federal laws but, when asked why the certificates have an expiration date shorter than five years, he declined to give further details.
"I'm not a lawyer," he said.
Here's what state law says about gift cards: "It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or issue a gift certificate where the underlying funds are subject to an expiration date which is earlier than five years after the date on which the gift certificate was issued, or the date on which funds were last loaded to a store gift card. The terms of expiration shall be clearly and conspicuously stated on the gift certificate."
Federal law is more clear, prohibiting the sale of gift cards with expiration dates, unless the expiration date "is not earlier than five years after the date on which the gift certificate was issued, or the date on which card funds were last loaded to a store gift card or general-use prepaid card and the terms of expiration are clearly and conspicuously stated."
A notice on the Simply Certificates website reads: "Holders of Expired Gift Certificates, please note. ... We are sorry to learn that you have chosen to disregard the Code of Acceptance and let your certificates expire. But, we can help."
It then instructs customers to contact customer service.
And that is where many customers have run into problems.
Since at least 2016, customers have complained that calls and emails to the company, asking to have expired certificates made good, have been ignored, according to complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau. The bureau lists 24 customer complaints about Simply Certificates on its website, with most consumers complaining they could not reach the company to reissue expired certificates. Simply Certificates has an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau.
One complainant said they had bought nearly $3,000 worth of certificates, some of which expired, they said. They called the customer service number for two months asking to have expired certificates reissued, but calls to the company were not returned, they said. The complaint, lodged in February, has still not been answered, according to the BBB.
When asked about customers' inability to reach the company, Lynn said the company does return customers' calls and declined to comment further.
Lynn said I could contact his attorney Jeffrey F. Voelkl for further information, but Voelkl said he was not representing Lynn in the matter and could not speak on his behalf.
As of Monday, a notice on the Simply Certificates website concerning expired certificates read: "We are sorry to learn that you have chosen to disregard the date and let your certificate expire. You can send the certificates, which you let expire, along with a certified cashier's check or money order (to cover the restocking fee of $5.00/certificate), $4.95 postage/handling fee along with the certificates, certified mail to Simply Certificates."
The original notice is still available under "Orders & Returns."
I spoke with the state Attorney General's Office and a spokesperson said the office is aware of the situation with Simply Certificates and is looking into it.
In the meantime, you might want to redeem your Simply Certificates right away.