Holiday Shopping 2013

Holiday shopping has started already and while some fun and some great deals can be had, it’s a time when many of us can get tripped up on store policies and may fall victim to unsavory characters.

Below are some common things you’ll find while shopping and some basic information on what to do if you’re the victim of a crime.


It seems like this is the time of year when thieves are most active. Whether it’s a stolen gift card or a package from your front porch, there may be things you can do to recoup at least some of the money lost.

Gift Cards

The good news is that for most retailers, as long as you (or the person who purchased the gift card) have the original receipt for it, they will still honor the value of the card. But the trick is making sure you have the receipt. If the card is from a store, usually you will not have to pay for a replacement – they will just cancel the card and issue you a new one. For others, like some bank issued cards, they may charge a replacement fee. Without the receipt though, there’s not much you can do.

Stolen Packages

This is a particularly troublesome issue, because this involves someone actually coming onto your property and stealing a package that has been delivered. First, you should ensure that the seller has shipped the item, and that it is listed as being delivered (ie, UPS tracking, etc). Any recourse you have will be based on the person or business shipping the package and how the item was shipped. For some retailers, it is as simple as calling them and saying that although the item is listed as delivered, you never received it. Most places will send out the item again and the next time may require a signature. If the item was shipped through UPS and was lost along the way somewhere, you also have the option of reporting it as missing and filing a claim with them. It does take some time, but once the claim is approved at least a portion of your money would be refunded. Shipping through the US Postal Service is handled differently. Again, if it’s a large retailer, you can always contact them and ask for a replacement or for them to ship using an alternative method. If a private party, like your Aunt Becky, shipped the package to you, it may be a different story. The catch with this situation is making sure that the item was insured when it was shipped. As long as it was, then you can file a claim. If the sender purchased no insurance on it- you’re out of luck.


Again, this is always worst around the holidays. Use common sense. LOCK YOUR CAR. If someone breaks into your car while it is unlocked, while it is still a crime, and you should contact the police – chances are there is very little you will be able to do. Car insurance policies do not cover personal belongings or packages in the car. While your homeowner’s insurance may, you will have to pay a deductible, so you may be throwing good money after bad.


Many people choose to give gift cards this time of year because they’re fast, easy, and you can ensure that the person gets something that he/she would like.

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 specifically addressed gift cards and says that a gift card can not have an expiration date less than five years after the card is purchased.

The retailer also cannot charge dormancy, inactivity, and service fees unless the card has not been used for at least 12 months. If fees are charged after this period, the details have to be clearly established on the card,. Retailers also can’t assess more than one fee per month under any circumstances.


The most important thing to remember is that stores do not have to make refunds, take returns, or offer exchanges, even if you have a receipt. The only exception is for items that are misrepresented or defective at the time of the purchase.

Stores in Pennsylvania are required to clearly post their return policy AND follow that policy.


Make sure you check the store’s policies carefully, especially on larger items and electronics that may have shorter exchange times or restocking fees.

Make sure you do keep your receipts in the event you do want to return something.

Get a gift receipt. A recipient who decides to exchange an item might be issued a gift card or store credit for the lowest price for which the item ever sold. You’ll also need the receipt for warranty service. Note: Purchases made in November or December are often eligible for extended return or other privileges.


Check the dates on rebates—usually they apply only to purchases made in a specific time period and then must also be filed within that time period.

Make sure that you are complying with the terms and the requirements of the rebate. Keep receipts and packing materials and make sure that you keep UPC codes and proofs of purchase because you will likely need these as well.

Keep track of when you sent in the rebate, and if you don’t receive it within the time frame specified, call the company.


This will usually apply to big ticket items such as furniture, electronics, or jewelry or new accounts in a store. To truly be able to pay no interest, you must pay off the entire amount by the time period stated. If you fail to pay the whole thing off, you will end up paying the interest on the whole amount—even if you have paid off most of it.

Usually these are extremely high interest rates as well, so make sure that you are truly able to pay the whole amount off before you agree to these terms.


Because of the convenience factor, many people are choosing to shop online. As with traditional in-store purchases though, you need to make sure you comparison shop and make sure you’re buying from a reputable seller.

Make sure you figure out how much the shipping and handling will be. Sometimes even though an item has a lower price, it may not be a great deal once you add the shipping to it.

Some retailers that have physical stores will allow you to order an item online and then pick it up in the store.

Check to make sure that a seller is reputable. See how long they’ve been in business, if they have a phone number, physical address, etc.

Look for symbols from the Better Business Bureau, Verisign, and TRUSTe to make sure the site is safe.

Look for symbols in your browser like a key or a lock to show that the information is being encrypted to make sure others can’t access it.

Check the retailer’s privacy policies to make sure no one else will receive your information.

Check shipping policies to see if you can track the packages; check for refund/exchange policies as well.

Use a credit card for your purchases. You are only liable for $50.00 if you are billed for fraudulent charges.

Never send any financial or payment information through email. It is not secure.


As always, if you have any questions about consumer law, call the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555 or visit our online Lawyer Referral Service.