Consumer law

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the December 23, 2008 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

Given that we're in the midst of the holiday shopping season and have a million things on our "to do" lists, we wanted to touch on a couple things you're likely to see when you're doing your holiday shopping and some things to watch out for as well.


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.

There is no law in Pennsylvania that says gift cards have to have an expiration date. Some will and some will not, it's your responsibility to check and make sure it's a time frame you can live with.

Under PA law, unused gift certificates are turned over to the PA Department of the Treasury as unclaimed property.
- If a card has no expiration date, the retailer must turn it in 5 years after the date it is issued.
- If a card has an expiration date, the retailer must turn it in 2 years after the date it expires.

If you believe you have a gift card that was turned over to the Treasury you may contact them to claim it.

I found a gift card that says it has expired. What now?

Take the gift card to the retailer. While the retailer does not have to honor it, it may still be willing to do so.


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

Keep in mind 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.

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 e-mail. It is not secure.


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, for any questions Consumer law, you may contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.