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(SACRAMENTO) – The holiday season means joy, the warmth and love of family and friends, and the spirit of giving. But the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping can bring pitfalls that consumers should avoid. Attorney General Bill Lockyer urges shoppers to be careful and smart, and to know their rights, as they search for that perfect gift. He offers these 10 tips:
1. Keep your personal information, such as Internet password, driver's license number and Social Security number, private. Never give personal information over the telephone, the Internet or mail unless you know and trust the company. A business cannot require you to write your address, telephone number or personal identification information on a credit card slip. In addition, a business cannot require you to write your credit card account number on a check.
2. Make sure that your credit card number is secure when you send it online. Look for the unbroken key symbol or locked padlock at the bottom of your screen. This means that information such as your credit card number is secure when you transmit it electronically to the company.
3. If you're using lay-a-way, know your rights. You must get in writing: the amount of the down payment; a description of the goods; how long the goods will be held; the total price, including any handling or processing charges; and the refund policy. You can get a full refund if the product becomes unavailable or is not in the same condition as when you started your lay-a-way. Pay on time and keep a record of your payments.
4. Compare warranties when choosing a product. Check to see what parts and repair problems are not covered by the contract. Are big expenses, such as labor charges, included? Check to see how long the warranty lasts. Does the warranty cover damage the product may cause, such as spoiled food if your freezer breaks? Most do not. Make sure the warranty meets your needs.
Some warranties may cover only personal use of the product and not business use. Some may require repairing or using the product in a certain way. Where will a defective product be serviced? Know a company's policy regarding products that fail – ask whether the company usually repairs the product, replaces it, or returns your money if it fails. If an extended service contract is offered for sale with the product, make sure that it actually provides extra protection, that you need the extra protection and that the extra protection is worth the extra cost.
5. Ask about the store's return policy. Is there a limited time for returns? Can you get cash back? Can you get a credit on your credit card account? Can you get store credit only? Always keep your receipt.
6. Shop around. Compare in-store, mail order and online prices. Check specials in the newspapers. Before you have merchandise shipped, make sure you know how much you may have to pay for shipping and handling. Also, make sure you know any return or cancellation policies, such as restocking fees. Ask how long it will take for the goods to be shipped and when you can expect delivery.
7. Examine all children's toys before purchase. Look for small parts that may come off and cause a child to choke. Follow the age recommendations listed on toys. Check for sharp edges. If you're buying a gift for a very young child, listen to the sound level to make sure it is not too loud.
8. Remember: There is no three-day cooling off period on car purchases. But there is a general three-day cooling off period for items that cost more than $25 and are purchased at places other than where the goods are normally offered for sale.
9. When making large purchases, check to see if the retailer is reliable. Some cities and counties have consumer affairs offices and Better Business Bureaus that will tell you whether they have received complaints about a business. If you can, review the retailer's complaint history.
10. If you plan to pay for a gift by credit card, make sure you know how much interest you will pay. If you make minimum payments, the interest can add a huge amount to the final cost of the gift. Figure out the cost by adding the price of the item to the monthly interest charges you will pay until you pay off the credit card bill for the item. It's best to make a holiday budget and stick to it.