It seems like the holidays arrive earlier each year. Just as we are tossing out the jack-o-lanterns, were putting up the Christmas lights. For some, the thrill of the holiday season includes finding the perfect gift. Many of us, however, dread heading out to the malls during this time and end up picking up gift cards to avoid the holiday shopping rush.

Convenience is one of the biggest benefits of gift cards or gift certificates. They are easy to purchase, easy to mail, and especially ideal when you dont know what to get the recipient. The ease of gift cards has made them so popular that Stateline.org estimates sales will top $73 billion this year. American Expresss own survey projects that gift cards will replace games, toys, movies and clothes as the gift to buy and receive during the holidays.

We know that gift cards are convenient for the buyer and that many consumers will be purchasing them this holiday season. But will the recipient of a gift card actually use it? According to a Consumer Reports survey, more than half of respondents received gift cards last year, but only 19 percent ended up using them. In many states, this can pose a problem, especially if the gift card has a short expiration date or if the retailer charges a fee for not using the card after a period of time.

Consumers in Louisiana, however, are protected in many ways. Our consumer protection laws provide that gift certificates, gift cards and merchandise credits may not have an expiration date of less than five years. If a retailer does not put an expiration date on a gift certificate or gift card, the card or certificate will be valid until it is redeemed.

In addition, these laws prohibit gift certificates and gift cards from having fees in excess of a one-time handling charge of $1. A gift card or gift certificate in Louisiana cannot include service fees or dormancy fees that are typically charged if the card or certificate has not been used after a certain amount of time.

There are a few exceptions to the state's gift card law including donated or below-value gift certificates used for charity fundraising; gift certificates that are usable with multiple sellers of goods; and loyalty or promotional programs where a consumer does not give anything of value in exchange for the gift card or gift certificate.

If you are planning on buying a gift card over the holidays, or if you are the recipient of one, keep in mind that you have some protections under state law. Have a great holiday season!