With the approach of Thanksgiving, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) is offering tips to people planning on shopping on Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – and Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

“For people trying to find Holiday deals, Black Friday and Cyber Monday hold a lot of allure,” said Dana Badgerow, President and CEO of the BBB. “What we’re aiming to do is remind people to think ahead, make a budget, be aware of store policies – particularly return policies – and not get so focused on potential bargains they fall victim to scams or fraudulent websites.”

Black Friday shoppers should be sure to keep these tips in mind:

  • Check out the company. Call the BBB at 1-800-646-6222 or visit bbb.org to obtain free Business Reviews. Don’t forget, BBB reports have been optimized for smartphones.
  • Getting the real deal.  Do you know if a sale is really a sale?  Many times companies boast “70 percent off,” but 70 percent off what? It always pays to comparison shop. If a company is advertising a “Going out of Business” sale, don’t automatically assume they are offering the best prices in town. Check prices on the same items at other stores.
  • Search for Black Friday Ads Ahead of Time.  Newspapers often have coupons that give discounts for Black Friday. Black Friday ads are also posted on the Internet.  Some sites post ads for Black Friday before they are published.
  • Return policies, restocking fees and refunds.  Ask for the store’s return policy before you make your purchase. Companies are not required to give you your money back, but they need to post their return policy prominently near the cashier. Also, always ask about restocking fees, and save your receipts in one place so you don’t lose them.  Many companies will require you to produce a receipt for a return. Ask for a gift receipt.
  • Gift cards. More than half of last year’s holiday shoppers said they’d like to receive gift cards, marking four years in a row gift cards have topped consumers’ wish lists. New federal rules governing gift card sales went into effect in 2010.

Those rules state:

  • An inactivity fee cannot be charged until the card has not been used for 12 months.
  • Gift cards cannot expire for at least 5 years.
  • No more than one fee (of any kind) can be charged to the cardholder in a single month.
  • Information printed on the card must disclose fees and expiration date and provide a toll-free phone number or website where you can get more information.
  • A one-time fee can be charged when you buy the card, though this generally only applies to gift cards purchased through your credit card company – not those purchased directly from stores and restaurants.

Note:     These new rules do not cover reloadable cards, such as prepaid phone cards or debit cards from the big credit card companies. Rebate and loyalty reward programs are also exempt. If you receive a gift card, you should redeem it promptly if possible.

A recent National Retail Federation survey revealed the average person plans to do 36% of their holiday shopping online this year – up from 33% last year. For people looking to take advantage of Cyber Monday deals, the BBB suggests taking these simple precautions to avoid online fraud:

1. Protect your computer – A computer should always have the most recent updates installed for spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a secure firewall.

2. Shop on trustworthy websites – Check on the seller’s reputation and record for customer satisfaction at bbb.org. Look for the BBB seal and other widely-recognized “trust marks” on retailer websites. Always remember to click on the seals to confirm that they are valid.

3. Protect your personal information – Take the time to read the privacy policy of websites you visit and understand what personal information is being collected and how it will be used. If there isn’t one posted, be aware your information may be sold to others without permission.

4. Beware of deals that sound too good to be true – Offers on websites and in unsolicited emails can often sound too good to be true especially ones offering extremely low prices. When visiting a website, look for misspellings and grammatical errors, as these are signs the site might be fraudulent. Trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to pass up “deals” that might cost you dearly.

5. Beware of phishing – Legitimate businesses do not send emails claiming problems with an order or an account to lure the “buyer” into revealing financial information. If a consumer receives such an email, the BBB recommends picking up the phone and calling the retailer you dealt with or your credit card provider to confirm there really is a problem with the transaction. Always be extremely protective of your personal and financial information.

6. Confirm your online purchase is secure – Shoppers should always look in the address box for the “s” in https:// and in the lower-right corner for the “lock” symbol before paying.

7. Pay with a credit card – It’s best to use a credit card, because under federal law, the shopper can dispute the charge if he or she doesn’t receive the item. Shoppers also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on their credit card.

8. Keep documentation of your order - After completing the online order process, there should be a final confirmation page or the shopper might receive confirmation by email. Save a copy of that as well as any emails for future reference and as a record of the purchase.

9. Check your credit card statements often – Don’t wait for paper statements; the BBB recommends consumers check their credit card statements for suspicious activity by checking statements online regularly or by calling their credit card companies if fraud is suspected.

10. Know your rights – Federal law requires that orders made by mail, phone or online be shipped by the date promised or, if no delivery time was stated, within 30 days. If the goods aren’t shipped on time, the shopper can cancel and demand a refund. There is no general three-day cancellation right, but consumers do have the right to reject merchandise if it’s defective or was misrepresented. Otherwise, it’s the company’s policies that determine if the shopper can cancel the purchase and receive a refund or credit.

For more advice on staying safe online this holiday season, visit www.bbb.org/us/consumer-tips-holiday/.

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