I discovered yesterday that a gift card that was supposed to expire this month, according to the front of the card, actually expired over a year ago.

That discovery happened at the checkout counter when the card was denied. I said to the cashier, “But it says on the front of the card that it’s good through September 2011.” He advised me to call the bank.

Turns out when I called the bank that the amount left on the card was in reality zero, even though the face value was supposed to be $25. What happened was that the bank, in this case the First National Bank of Omaha, had been deducting a “monthly maintenance fee” of $2.50 for every month that the card had been unused, plus a “closure fee” of $25.00 that would be “assessed at card expiration,” according to tiny print at the back of the card that I had never bothered to read before yesterday.

So even though the Visa card said on the front that it was good from September 2009 through September 2011, it actually was only good for 10 months, or roughly until July 2010. The card I had been procrastinating to use and carrying in my wallet all this time was just a worthless piece of plastic in the end, and the bank that issued the card got to keep all the money.

Now, while this might be just another instance of how my procrastination turned out to be a bad idea, it’s also another sign of how banks and card issuers get away with charging all sorts of fees that allow them to report bigger profits every quarter. Meanwhile, despite the passage last year of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and the earlier passage of a Credit Card Bill of Rights, many of their most important protections for consumers have been watered down by banks during endless rounds of lobbying on Capitol Hill and at the various regulatory agencies.

One agency that was supposed to be set up as a result of the Dodd-Frank law, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, remains in limbo because of steadfast opposition by some in the Senate to the appointment of a director, whether it’s Richard Cordray or Elizabeth Warren, or anyone else, until the agency can be rendered effectively toothless. So while the Dodd-Frank Act and the Credit Card Bill of Rights sound good in theory, banks and card issuers are still allowed to misrepresent their products to consumers and raise fees at will.

Unfortunately, even the passage of laws designed to make it easier for consumers to use financial products still allow banks to maintain the upper hand.

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