Holiday Shopping 2012

We're in the thick of the holiday shopping season and are running into stores for gifts and buying on-line. Below are some situations you’re likely to encounter this time of year and some helpful tips.


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 can not 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, 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.


Be extremely cautious when facing any of the following – more often than not they are pitfalls for the unwary consumer:

  • Pleas for charitable donations from bogus organizations – research the charity’s background and you can even check them with the Better Business Bureau.
  • Identity theft while shopping – either on-line or in the mall. Guard credit card numbers well and ensure that the site you are purchasing from is secure.
  • Bogus/scam websites - if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Check credentials before purchasing.
  • Purchasing “hot” items from private sellers – never give payment information/credit card numbers, etc. in an email, and never wire money as a payment. Check on the seller as much as possible, and again – trust your instincts.


If you've completely blown the budget and maxed out your credit cards, here are some tips:

Pay more than the minimum payment if you can. Just paying the minimum usually only covers your finance charges, and you will be facing that debt for quite some time.
Ask the credit card company to lower your interest rate. If you have a decent history with the company, it never hurts to ask.

Check other credit cards to see if they offer a lower interest rate. It may pay you to transfer the balances to a lower interest card.

If all else fails, seek credit counseling from a reputable agency.


First, call the credit card company and notify it that you are disputing a charge.
Follow the phone call with a written letter to the billing inquiries department of your credit card company. The letter should include your name, address, account number, the disputed charge, and a reason you are disputing it.
The credit card company must acknowledge receipt of your letter within 30 days and then must settle the matter within 90 days.

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.