It's become a yearly tradition at the Attorney General's Office to release a list of holiday shopping tips. This year, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna recruited attorneys, investigators and other office staff to chip in with their suggestions:
• Plan your spending: "Create a budget before you hit the mall or the Internet," McKenna said. "Know in advance how much you plan to spend on each person on your list. It's the simplest, yet perhaps one of the least used tips to help you keep your spending in check. It also helps prevent you from picking up a little something for yourself while you're shopping for others." The Better Business Bureau, in cooperation with Clearpoint Credit Solutions, offers a Holiday Planner Calculator to help you create a holiday shopping budget.
• Think twice about gift cards: "Will the recipient use it soon?" asks Senior Attorney General's Office Investigator MaryBeth Haggerty-Shaw. "Is it a realistic gift for that person? Gift cards that are not used right away are often not used at all. I have two in my wallet from last Christmas. I was moving my parents this summer and found a two-inch pile of cards they received over the years to restaurants, bookstores and department stores that have never been used. Retailers encourage gift cards because only a percentage of them are ever used. Instead, try a personal gift card from you. A day of yard work, take someone to lunch during the dark winter days, make a monthly dessert or plate of cookies."
• Think three times about gift cards: "Most gift cards don't expire in Washington and should not incur fees, said Managing Assistant Attorney General Mary Lobdell. "Bank gift cards are the exception. Beware of that mall gift card with the Visa logo on it. Most will expire and incur fees, so check the fine print on the back of the card. Retailers also count on the consumer losing or forgetting to redeem the gift card. Retailers call this "breakage" and it's only good for them. Also, when trying to redeem a gift card – if you know that card has money left on it – don't take no for an answer. If the retailer won't honor the card, file a complaint with the Attorney General's Office.
• Use credit cards – not debit cards – online: "Remember that your debit card is linked directly to your checking account," says AGO Research Analyst Sean Beary. "Let's say you were tricked into making a purchase on a site owned by a shady overseas operation. Most credit cards offer some fraud protection, limiting your losses, as long as you report the fraud immediately. That's not always the case with debit cards. Plus, you don't want to provide an opportunity for someone to empty out your checking account."
• Use secure websites for online shopping: "One clue about which websites are safe and which aren't is to look for ‘https' in the web address and a little yellow padlock in the browser bar," said AGO Consumer Protection Division Chief Shannon Smith,. "Also, don't make purchases over a free wi-fi hotspot, which can be scanned by those looking to capture your passwords and other information."
• Free trial offers aren't so free: "This happens with some frequency when people buy electronic products – a music or video game service, for example – and there is an attached free trial for a service that you don't care about or want," said L. Jim McAdams, AGO Program Specialist. "These quickly convert into monthly charges on your credit card. You may end up being billed in a few weeks or months for something you didn't even notice."
• Just say no to extended service plans: AGO Deputy Communications Director Dan Sytman likes to refer to himself in the third person. He also likes big box stores – especially ones that sell gadgets. But he's tired of being pitched on extended service plans, so he checked to see what ConsumerReports.org has to say about them. Among their seven reasons not to buy extended warranties: "[S]tores keep 50 percent or more of what they charge for plans — more than they can make selling actual products." Consumer Reports also finds that many products are reliable, making that extra warranty unnecessary.
• Keep receipts and packaging: "When shopping, don't forget to ask for gift receipt and include it with the present," says Elizabeth Williamson, Consumer Protection Public Records Coordinator. "And when you receive gifts, you can even scan the receipts into your computer for safe keeping. Having a receipt makes it much easier to return a gift – not that I ever do that." For the tech-savvy, there are even smartphone apps that allow you to scan receipts and other items. Remember that many retailers only refund the lower price, or the after-holiday sale price, unless you can prove you paid more.