Holiday Shopping Safety Tips: Check Refund Policies, Guard Personal Info
Attorney General Roy Cooper urges North Carolina holiday shoppers to protect themselves from problems such as gifts that can't be returned, unsafe toys, and scams to steal your identity.
"Make your holidays less stressful by being a smart shopper and learning the rules about refunds, returns and gift cards," Cooper said. "Parents can also take steps to make sure their kids' new toys and gadgets lead to fun instead of trouble."
- Protect your identity. You keep your wallet in a safe place when you go shopping. It's just as important to guard your personal information.
Protect your Social Security, driver's license and bank account numbers when you shop online, and don't share this information with telemarketers who call you on the phone.
- Beware of unsolicited e-mails. E-mails that arrive in your inbox with too-good-to be-true offers are usually frauds.
One of the trickiest forms of online fraud is called "phishing," which uses e-mails cleverly disguised to look as if they come from a real financial institution, company or charity. In reality, the con artists are seeking your financial information in order to spend your money and threaten your credit.
- Make sure kids' gifts are safe. Thousands of products are recalled every year because of safety problems. You can check out recalls for toys, electronics and other household items by visiting the Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site at www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prerel.html, where you can also sign up to get e-mails about future recalls.
- Remember online safety, too. If Santa brings your family a new laptop, PDA or other device that gets Internet access, make sure you enable filtering software or parental monitoring. Before your kids use their new gadgets to go online, remind them not to post or share personal information or photos that could fall into the wrong hands. For a free guide on keeping children safe on the Internet, visit www.ncdoj.gov.
- Buy age-appropriate computer and video games. More than 50 percent of computer and video games are sold during the holiday shopping season, but not all games are created with kids in mind. Remember to check the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating before purchasing computer or video games as gifts.
- Learn about refund and return policies. Stores aren't required by law to accept returned merchandise, so ask about refunds and return policies before you buy.
Many retailers offer store credit instead of a cash refund, and some charge a "restocking fee" for returns.
Hang on to receipts, and remember to print receipts for online purchase and keep invoices that arrive with mail order gifts. If your purchase came by mail, you may have to pay postage to return it.
- Buy from stores you know. Buying from a well-established store improves the odds that you'll be able to return or exchange a purchase if needed.
To check out a company's track record, call the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division toll-free at (877) 5-NO-SCAM or contact your local Better Business Bureau.
- Consider paying by credit card to improve your chances of getting a refund if the retailer goes out of business. If you order a gift that never arrives, you may be able to dispute the charge.
Also, if your credit card is stolen or used by an unauthorized person, federal law limits your liability to $50. Some credit cards offer extra protections for buyers, usually for a fee.
- Ask when your order will arrive. Internet and catalog shoppers are protected by the Federal Mail Order Rule.
By law, a company is required to ship your order within the time stated in its catalog or on its Web site. If it doesn't give you a timeline, they have 30 days to ship your purchase once they've received your order.
If the seller can't ship the item on time, they must let you know and give you a chance to cancel for a full refund.
- Giving gift cards or certificates? Buy from well-established stores to improve the chances that the retailer will still be in business when the gift certificates are redeemed.
If you buy a gift certificate with a credit card and the company closes before the certificate can be used, you may be able to contest the charge through your credit card company. Some gift cards begin to lose their value if you don't use them by a certain time.
Under a new state law, retailers can't charge a maintenance fee on their gift cards within the first year and must clearly disclose any fees they'll deduct from the value of the gift card after that.
- Shop within your means. In this troubled economy, many families are shopping more frugally. No matter where you shop this holiday season, buy only what you can afford to avoid starting the New Year in debt.
To check out a company with the Attorney General's Office or file a consumer complaint, call (877) 5-NO-SCAM toll-free within North Carolina
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