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Attorney General Lockyer Offers Holiday Shopping Tips to Consumers

Smart Shopping Will Help Keep the Season Happy
Friday, November 28, 2003
Contact: (415) 703-5837

(SACRAMENTO) – As Californians approach the joyous, but hectic holiday season, Attorney General Bill Lockyer today reminded shoppers to be careful and smart, and to know their rights as they search for the perfect gift.

"The holidays bring the warmth and love of family friends, and the joy that comes from the spirit of giving," said Lockyer. "But the hurly-burly of holiday shopping also brings pitfalls consumers should avoid. Smart shopping can help Californians ensure that the season's happiness won't end after the gifts are unwrapped." Lockyer offered the following tips to consumers:

Keep personal information, such as Internet password, driver's license number and Social Security number, private to the greatest extent possible. Never give personal information over the telephone, the Internet or by 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.

Make sure 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.

If you use lay-a-way, know your rights. You should 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 plan. Pay on time, and keep a record of your payments.

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.

Ask about the store's return policy for the product you are buying. For example, the store may not accept returns for seasonal buys. 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.

Compare warranties when choosing a product. Check to see what parts, repair problems and costs, such as labor, are covered. Find out how long the warranty lasts. Make sure the warranty meets your needs. Some warranties may cover only personal use of the product and not business use. Know a company's policy regarding products that fail: Will the company repair the product, replace it, or return your money? If an extended service contract is offered for sale with the product, make sure it actually provides extra protection, that you need the extra protection and that it is worth the added cost. Most extended service contracts include the period already covered by the warranty.

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.

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 normally are offered for sale.

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.

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.

When purchasing gift certificates, get a clear understanding before leaving the store of the terms governing the certificate's use. California law generally prohibits expiration dates on gift certificates. But retailers may charge for non-use within a specified period. Most retailers allow multiple uses, up to the face value, but some may permit only one use. When users buy less than the face value, some retailers provide cash for the unused amount.

Avoid taking out a "payday loan" to get extra holiday cash. These loans carry exorbitant interest rates and high fees. Never, not even in the holiday season, does it make financial sense for anyone to obtain one of these loans. They may provide quick cash to those hard-pressed for money, but in the end they only leave consumers in worse financial condition.

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