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Be a Wise Shopper this Holiday Season

Online shopping and gift certificates have become convenient options for consumers who don't want to brave the maddening mall rush during the holiday season. Whether you buy from an e-tailer or a retailer, the California Department of Consumer Affairs has a few holiday hints, which can help you be a wise shopper this year.

Gift Certificates are Quick and Easy to Give. Gift Certificates are becoming increasingly popular to give during the holiday season. Surveys show 40-50 percent or more of consumers purchase gift certificates for the holidays.

A Timeless Gift?: Remember that most gift certificates cannot have an expiration date, and are valid until redeemed or replaced. A gift card that can be used with multiple sellers of goods or services that are not affiliated may contain an expiration date. If so, the expiration date must be printed on the card. A gift certificate or gift card that is sold to the purchaser as a gift for another person (the “recipient”) may state a date by which the recipient must redeem the certificate or card.

There is an exception to the “no expiration date” rule. A seller that chooses to state a redemption date on a gift card or gift certificate must give the purchaser a full refund of the amount paid for the certificate or card if the recipient does not redeem it by the redemption date. Certain gift certificates or gift cards sold after January 1, 1998 may be exempt. These include: certificates that are distributed under various awards programs; certificates sold to employers or to nonprofit and charitable organizations for fundraising purposes; and certificates issued for food products.

With these exceptions it should also be noted that retailers aren't required to redeem a certificate for cash. It is strictly based on the policies of the sellers.

Refunds & Exchanges: Always review the company's return policy. Is proof of purchase required? Is there a time frame for returns? By law, stores don't have to offer refunds and exchanges, provided that this policy is clearly stated. Return policies must be displayed if the retailer does not give a full cash or credit refund, an equal exchange, or some combination of these, in the event the customer returns the merchandise within seven days with proof of purchase.

Click With Caution When Shopping Online:

Know Your E-tailer: Consumers should familiarize themselves with online companies. Although businesses may seem as close as your keyboard, in reality they could be on the other side of the world. Consequently, problems could arise if products need to be returned. Will they give you a cash refund? Who pays shipping on returned items?

Shop Trusted Brands: Look for brand items that you know and trust. A bargain brand really isn't a bargain if it turns out to be an inferior product.

Be a Private Eye: Be sure to read the privacy policy disclosures and understand what companies do with your personal information before giving out credit card numbers or other personal information. For more privacy protection information log on to:

Review Customer Service: Make sure you can call, write or get through to customer service if problems arise with your purchases. Even an e-mail response should tell consumers when a customer service representative will contact them.

Check DCA's E-Consumer Tips: Visit the Department's Web site at for more helpful information on safe online shopping.

Hey Big Spenders:

For big-ticket purchases, such as televisions, stereos and computers, do an independent cost comparison on these items. "Before a consumer considers purchasing a service contract he or she should read it thoroughly," says Brian Stiger, Acting Chief for the Bureau of Electronic & Appliance Repair. "The service contract details the exact coverage consumers are getting. It's like an extended warranty." For additional information log on to:

Remember that a service contract may not offer much protection if it includes too many exclusions.

The Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair encourages consumers to research items they intend to purchase. "Check Consumer Reports and read any other information on the product," adds Stiger. "This will help consumers make the best decision and ultimately give them the best value for their money.""Be a Wise Shopper" is just one wish on the Department's "Consumers' Holiday Wish List."

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