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On Wall Street, assembly are talking about how “toxic debt” threatens banks and lending. Out on Main Street, shoppers bigger alpha cerebration about “toxic” allowance cards from companies that could go bankrupt. They won’t be annual the artificial they are printed on.

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There’s a new ability that captivation a allowance agenda from a afflicted banker is like accepting a coffer annual after FDIC insurance.

It’s not an abandoned worry.

Shoppers spent an estimated $26.3 billion on allowance cards at retailers aftermost Christmas season, compared with $24.8 billion in 2006 and $18.5 billion in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation.

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“I am actual alert of allowance cards this year and do not plan to use any of them at all during the anniversary season. I artlessly do not assurance the companies unless they put on a characterization adage that they are absolutely returnable at face value,” said Dr. Richard Glassock of Laguna Niguel, a retired UCLA medical academy professor.

Already some big retailers, including Sharper Image and Bombay Co., acquire filed for defalcation protection, abrogation allowance agenda holders with millions of dollars of what the Defalcation Cloister considers apart debt. Both chains acquire back closed.

Consumers Union said that back Sharper Image filed for defalcation aegis this year, it larboard an estimated $20 actor on bare allowance cards, and maybe as abundant as $40 actor back commodity certificates and accompanying promotional cards were included. At aboriginal Sharper Image said it would not annual the credits. Later it auspiciously petitioned the cloister to acquiesce it to acquire allowance cards if consumers spent alert the amount of the allowance agenda on a distinct transaction.

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“That wasn’t such a acceptable deal, and who knows if anybody acclimated their cards that way,” said Anthony Giorgianni, accessory editor of Consumer Reports, which is appear by Consumers Union.

In August, home-furnishing banker Bombay Co., which bankrupt 388 stores, won approval from a U.S. defalcation adjudicator in Fort Annual to pay off allowance agenda holders 25 cents on the dollar.

Gift agenda holders could lose added than $75 actor aloof from abundance and restaurant closings in 2008, said Brian Riley, chief analyst at Tower Group, a consulting firm.

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“The alone way that cardinal will change is up,” Riley said.

Consumer groups are afraid about how little shoppers are adequate back spending all that money. In September, a affiliation of organizations asked the Federal Trade Commission to assure shoppers from accident money on allowance cards back retailers book for defalcation protection.

It said retailers should be appropriate to abode money from allowance agenda sales in a assurance annual that would be acclimated to annual the cards if the merchants connected operations beneath the aegis of the Defalcation Court. Consumers Union, Consumers Federation of America, National Consumer Law Center and the advancement accumulation U.S. PIRG are all abaft the proposal.

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FTC agent Mitchell J. Katz said the bureau had accustomed the address “and we are free what our acknowledgment will be.”

Unless the federal government accomplish in and regulates the industry, shoppers will lose the amount of their allowance cards back a merchant files for bankruptcy. The aggregation can address the cloister to acquiesce it to abide to acquire its allowance cards, but the defalcation adjudicator has the advantage to adios such a petition, which would leave the cards worthless, Giorgianni said. In those instances the alone recourse for shoppers is to book a affirmation forth with added creditors.

In cases in which a aggregation is reorganized or awash and charcoal a continuing business, best owners will get cloister ascendancy to annual the cards as a way to advance amicableness with consumers and drive chump traffic, said Marty Zohn, a defalcation advocate with Proskauer Rose in Century City.

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But in absolute liquidations, in which the food are closed, shoppers will be out of luck in best cases, he said.

State laws, including one in California, acquire accepted abortive in attention allowance agenda holders in bankruptcies, said Giorgianni of Consumer Reports.

That’s why Consumers Union is advising that bodies abstain giving allowance cards this Christmas season.

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“If you don’t apperceive what allowance to buy, aloof accord cash,” he said. “It’s article that never expires.”

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