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Attorney General Lockyer Offers Tips to Help Consumers Avoid Problems and Stay Jolly During Holiday Season

Smart, Careful Shopping Will Help Keep the Season Bright
Thursday, December 8, 2005
Contact: (415) 703-5837

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

“The warmth and love of family and friends, the joy that comes from the spirit of giving – that’s what the holidays are all about,” said Lockyer. “But hectic holiday shopping can bring pitfalls that consumers should avoid. My wish for Californians is that the season’s happiness doesn’t end after their gifts are unwrapped They can help make that come true with smart, careful shopping.”

Keep your personal information private. Never give your Internet passwords, driver's license number or Social Security number over the telephone, the Internet or by mail unless you know and trust the company, and you initiated the contact. If you pay for a purchase by credit card, the business cannot write down, or require you to write down, your address, telephone number or other personal identification information. If you pay for a purchase by check, the business cannot require you to provide a credit card number as a condition of accepting the check. If you receive a phone call or e-mail from someone indicating they need to verify your credit information so a recent transaction can be completed, do not give them any information. Instead, contact the merchant you did business with to determine whether they called you to obtain information in order to complete the order.

Be aware of the benefits and perils of gift certificates. 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 for use at specific retailers. But when cards can be used at multiple stores or chains, 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.

Know the rules about returns and exchanges before buying. Consumers often expect stores or catalog companies to give them a refund, credit or exchange when they return items. But some companies may have policies that limit exchanges or returns for some or all customers. Before making a purchase, carefully check the store’s policy. California law gives you the right to know a company’s refund policy before you buy. If a retailer has a policy of not providing a cash refund, credit, or exchange when an item is returned within seven days with proof of purchase, the store must conspicuously display that policy.

Read the warranty and know your rights. The law gives you the right to read the warranty before buying goods that cost more than $15. The retailer must display the text of the warranty near the product, provide the text upon request prior to sale, and place signs in prominent locations in the store or department to call prospective buyers’ attention to the availability of the warranty on request. Catalog and mail order sellers also are required to provide the text of the warranty prior to sale to anyone who asks. And door-to-door sellers must have copies of warranties with them. Before making a purchase, know what the warranty covers, and who is responsible for honoring it, to make sure it fits your needs.
Credit card purchases can bring added safety. When a credit card is used to buy merchandise or services, the law gives the cardholder three important rights. One, consumers are not liable for billing errors made by the retailer or card issuer. Two, credit card buyers have the right to withhold payment when they have a dispute with merchants about a purchase that exceeds $50. Third, credit cardholders cannot be held liable for any charges made after the cardholder gives the card issuer notice of an unauthorized use of the card, and until the card issuer completes an investigation. When charges are improper, submit a written complaint to the credit card company as soon as possible. For a fuller explanation of credit card rights, see “Credit Card Chargeback Rights” on the Attorney General’s web site, http://www.ag.ca.gov/consumers/general.htm .

Stay safe online. How safe is your credit card information when you send it online? Some web sites are more “secure” than others because they use encryption technology to protect your information. Although no technology is foolproof, there are ways to tell if you are dealing with a “secure” site. Look at the top of your screen to see if the web site address includes https:// instead of http://. The “s” means the site is secure. Also, look for the unbroken key symbol, or locked padlock icon at the bottom of your screen. Any of these signs means that private information, such as your credit card number, is more likely to be secure when you transmit it electronically to the company.

Beware of offers for quick cash loans. People who feel pressed to come up with extra money for holiday purchases can be vulnerable to offers of “payday loans,” “holiday loans” or other quick cash services. The problem with these products, however, is that they are very costly. Before you agree to take out a loan during the holiday season, compare total interest rates and the total of all charges and fees. First, look at the “annual percentage rate” of interest – the APR. Second, make sure you find out all the fees and charges you will have to pay in addition to the loan – including application fees, charges to pay off current debts, credit report fees, preparation fees and handling fees. Third, don’t rely on what the lender tells you it will cost. Get everything in writing before you sign anything. Bottom line: As hard as it may be to pay for the presents you’d like to give this holiday season, it may be much worse to find out in January that you’ve dug yourself into a financial hole. And the businesses offering you a loan now, when you’re most vulnerable, are handing you the shovel.

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