A tricky new computer virus is making the rounds, and infected users see pop-up messages which claim to be from the FBI and threaten people with a fine or prison unless they pay up. The virus, meanwhile, locks up your computer, holding it – and you – hostage, thus its name: “ransomware.” Computer users pick up this virus by clicking on malicious links in emails and messages sent through social media sites, or by visiting compromised websites. From there, a notice like the one below appears. The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) is offering some tips on how to avoid ransomware and advice on what to do if you become the next victim.

Your PC is blocked due to the illegal viewing or distribution of copyrighted content. To unblock the computer, you must pay the fine of $100.

People who have been hit by ransomware report seeing different versions of these warning messages; some ask for larger amounts of money and some claim to be from local police or the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). However, all of these messages are fraudulent. Users are told they need to pay requested amounts via a prepaid Green Dot MoneyPak cash card – which are difficult to trace – or they will be locked out of their computers permanently and face possible criminal charges. While it’s true that computer users will remain locked out until they get expert help, the threat of legal action is nothing more than a bluff.

“This scam, like so many scams, operates on fear and confusion,” said Dana Badgerow, president and CEO of the BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota. “Faced with supposed large fines or the threat of investigation by the FBI, it’s easy to see why people follow these bogus instructions. We’re telling people not to fall into that trap.”

People with infected computers will want to have the issue addressed as quickly as possible. It will likely take a computer repair expert or firm – one that’s been checked out first at bbb.org – to restore functionality and remove any lurking malware. However, the BBB is advising people not to pay the scammers. Computer security experts are confident that paying the scammers will not get your computer unfrozen. In fact, some believe that might just open the door to increased demands. People should also ignore any requests to provide personal or financial information.

To avoid ransomware, consumers should:

  • Make sure their computer has the most recent updates installed for spam filters, anti-virus and anti-spyware software and a secure firewall.
  • Avoid questionable websites and don’t click on any suspicious links.
  • Be aware that social networks are used to transmit and spread this virus and others like it.

It’s also a good idea to keep all your files backed up. If your computer becomes infected by ransomware, you should contact a computer expert or repair firm immediately and file a complaint with the FBI at ic3.gov.

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 1-800-646-6222. Visit our Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

 

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This year, Black Friday shopping will begin earlier than ever – kicking off Thanksgiving evening at some retail outlets. The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) is offering tips to people planning on taking advantage of Black Friday – traditionally the day after Thanksgiving – sales offers.

“Black Friday only seems to get bigger – and start earlier – each year,” said Dana Badgerow, president and CEO of the BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota. “We try to remind people to plan ahead, be mindful of their budgets, and always be clear on store return policies. On big ticket items especially, there may be restocking fees if a consumer wishes to make a return.”

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

  • 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. Take the time to 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. Gift cards regularly top consumers’ wish lists. Federal rules govern gift card sales, and 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 rules do not cover reloadable cards, such as prepaid phone card 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.

  • Check out the company. Visit bbb.org or call 800-646-6222 to obtain free Business Reviews. Remember, BBB Business Reviews have been optimized for smartphones.

Lastly, consumers are encouraged to have fun and be safe. Remember, there will be many more sales as we go through the holiday season.

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 800-646-6222. Visit our Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

 

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As Hurricane Sandy churns into the history books, millions of people along the East Coast and down through the Caribbean will be struggling for months, if not years, to return their lives to normal. Everyone who wishes to help those impacted by this catastrophic storm is encouraged to do so. In order to help ensure those donations do the most good, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) provides some tips for donating to relief agencies and charities.

“This deadly storm leaves behind a wide swath of destruction and despair,” said Dana Badgerow, president and CEO of the BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota. “Millions of people have been affected, and it’s going to require a lot of assistance – public and private – to get people back on their feet. Still, due diligence is important. You want to be sure the charity you’re supporting has the resources to offer support where it’s most needed.”

The BBB offers the following advice for donors looking to find trustworthy charities:

  • Visit www.bbb.org/charity to research organizations you’re considering supporting.
  • Consider making initial donations to established charities such as The American Red Cross (www.redcross.org/) or other organizations which have vast experience in carrying out relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters.
  • Be aware that while donating via text (through your cell phone carrier) is an easy way to give, funds will likely not be available for relief efforts as quickly as they would be if donations were made directly through the websites of individual charities and relief organizations. In some cases, it can take months for such donations to be received.
  • In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, financial donations are most helpful. When the cleanup and rebuilding phase begins, then clothes and household items are sought. But in the short-term, basic needs such as food and shelter come first.
  • Be sure that the charity is well-positioned to provide assistance in the affected regions. However well-intentioned they might be, not every charity has the infrastructure in place to be able to effectively deliver aid to those most in need.
  • Don’t give your credit card number or other personal information to a telephone solicitor or in response to an e-mail solicitation.
  • Don’t give in to excessive pressure for on-the-spot donations. Be especially wary of any offer to send a “runner” to pick up your contribution.
  • Be wary of charities that are reluctant to answer reasonable questions about their operations, finances and programs.
  • Don’t give cash. Checks or money orders should be made out to the name of the charitable organization, not to the individual collecting the donation.
  • Beware of fake charities that imitate the name and style of well-known organizations in an attempt to confuse donors.
  • Watch out for appeals that are long on emotion, but short on describing what the charity will do to address the needs of victims and their families.
  • Make sure your contribution is tax deductible: donations should be made to charitable organizations that are tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Go to IRS Publication 78 on the IRS’ website for a current list of all organizations eligible to receive contributions deductible as charitable gifts.

For additional information you can trust when making giving decisions, or to view BBB Wise Giving Reports on charities across the nation, start with www.give.org.

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 800-646-6222. Visit our Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

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Where do you turn if you’re in the market for a new place to live? A lot of people go online to find affordable rental properties. But before beginning your search, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) is warning people that there are many unscrupulous individuals using Craigslist and other websites – posing as landlords or rental agents – to scam you or steal your personal and financial information.

“The number of rental property scams online continues to grow,” says Dana Badgerow, President and CEO of the BBB. “The names of the fictitious “property owners” may change, but the methods are always the same: attractive-looking properties are offered at low or unbelievable prices; consumers wire money for security deposits or the first month’s rent and then quickly discover they’ve been defrauded.”

Ads like these are not limited to Craigslist, and the online thieves behind them – many of whom are based overseas – are out to swipe your money and your identity.

The BBB provides the following tips for avoiding online rental property scams:

  • Be leery of deals that sound too good to be true. Scammers will often list a rental at a very low price to lure in victims. Do some shopping around to find out how comparable listings are priced. If the rental comes in suspiciously low, walk away.
  • Never wire money at the request of any prospective “landlord” via Western Union, Money Gram or any other wire service.
  • Never send a scan of your passport or any other ID.  Online thieves will use your identity to scam others. Ask to see the landlord’s ID – record all the information you can from it.
  • Do an Internet search of the person’s name you’re supposedly dealing with. You could add the words “fraud” or “scam” at the end of your search terms.
  • If the ad or posting is full of spelling errors and grammatical errors, be aware there’s a good chance you’re dealing with an overseas scammer.
  • Always ask to inspect the property – inside and out. In many rental scams, the “landlords” prefer to communicate via email, claiming to be out of the country and unable to show the rental property. This is usually a huge red flag.
  • Consider using a real estate agent or a rental agency to find the property that’s right for you. Check them out first at www.bbb.org.

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at www.bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 1-800-646-6222. Visit our Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

 

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In the midst of their Centennial Celebration, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) will be changing locations. After over 45 years in St. Paul twenty-two years at its current location on Gannon Road the BBB will be relocating to Burnsville on March 26. They will occupy the former Farmers Insurance building near the intersection of Highway 13 and 35W, at 220 S. River Ridge Circle, Burnsville – 55337.

“Symbolically, as we mark our centennial, we’re very excited about this move and the prospect of a new beginning,” said Dana Badgerow, President and CEO of the BBB. “And though we’re certainly saddened to leave St. Paul, we feel our new offices better suit our current and future needs and will help us grow into a new century.”

The BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota is proud to be known as “the first BBB” in the world. Its roots trace back to 1912 in Minneapolis, when local business leaders banded together to promote truth in advertising, forming a “Vigilance Committee” of the Minneapolis Advertising Federation. This was the genesis of the Better Business Bureau, and a century later, the BBB is still supported by civic-minded business people.

The Better Business Bureau has maintained offices in St. Paul since 1965. In 1975, the BBB rented space in the Midway area of St. Paul after the Minneapolis and St. Paul BBBs merged.  At a BBB Board Meeting in the late 80’s, Board Member Jim Lupient, an auto dealer and real estate entrepreneur, proposed that the BBB should buy a building, stating, ”The Better Business Bureau has been in operation for 75 years. It’s time our Board moves to buy a building where it can better serve our customers and member businesses.” In 1989, the BBB purchased and moved into a building in the Highland neighborhood of St. Paul.

“Burnsville is a vibrant city and we look forward to becoming part of that community,” said Badgerow. “We’ll still remain closely tied to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where our roots lie, and we will continue to serve all of Minnesota and North Dakota.”

An open house and Grand Opening will be held later this spring. The BBB’s office building at 2706 Gannon Road is currently up for sale.

On March 1, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) will join a growing list of BBBs throughout the country that offer complaint details in their free Business Reviews. Previously, complaints were classified into twelve categories and only the type of each complaint was reported, along with basic information on how that complaint was closed. Starting March 1, the actual text from consumer complaints will be included, as well as the initial business response, and any subsequent business/consumer correspondence in reportable complaints.

“We’re excited about this change and feel it only enhances the transparency and openness of our complaint handling process,” said Dana Badgerow, President and CEO of the BBB. “We’ve consulted other BBBs that have made this change and they’ve reported widespread consumer and business acceptance.”

The BBB is making this change in response to feedback solicited from consumers over the last several months. Research showed consumers were looking for more detailed information on the types of complaints companies receive and how those complaints were ultimately resolved. This change also gives companies more of a voice in the complaint process, allowing consumers to directly observe their response to customer issues.

Because complaint detail will now be viewed by others, the BBB wants consumers and businesses to understand it is important that they include no personally identifiable information in their complaints and responses/rebuttals. Personally identifiable information includes names, phone numbers, names of competitor businesses and order, invoice or contract numbers. The information on complaints the BBB will provide boils down to the actual complaints from the consumers and the corresponding responses from the company.

“Another benefit is that it will encourage both consumers and businesses to put their best foot forward and continue to work in tandem to resolve disputes amicably,” added Badgerow.

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at www.bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 1-800-646-6222. Visit the BBB’s Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

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The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota   (BBB) invites high school and college students in Minnesota and North Dakota to be a part of their “Lighting the Way” Centennial Celebration by entering the Ethics: Uploaded video contest. Students (and student groups) will be asked to consider how the decisions they make each day impact their lives, as well as their futures, and then submit short videos which demonstrate the value of ethics.

One of the goals of the BBB’s Centennial, which marks 100 years of promoting ethical business practices and nurturing a marketplace where buyers and sellers can trust each other, is to increase awareness and start a dialogue about the importance of marketplace ethics today.

“Events like the Ethics: Uploaded video contest and our upcoming Ethics Summit on April 17 are geared towards today’s students and young consumers,” said BBB President and CEO Dana Badgerow. “We want to highlight the importance of making ethical decisions. We also want to hear their voices, their visions. After all, these are our future business and community leaders.”

Interested students are asked to explain, in original videos 30 seconds to 3 minutes long, what ethics means to them and their peers. Video style and narrative is open, and creativity is encouraged. Contestants may produce their videos on any device they wish, including cell phones or Flip cameras. Entries will be judged by a panel of independent judges and scholarship prizes will be awarded for the best videos.

Submissions will be accepted beginning Thursday, March 1 with an upload deadline of 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 20. All videos must be uploaded to the BBB’s YouTube channel for consideration (bbbis100.org/ethicsuploaded). Each contestant must provide contact information on the submission website. A brief (50 words or less) introductory paragraph may be submitted but is not required.

Video categories/Winning Prizes:

High School (grades 9-12) individual / $1,250 cash

High School (grades 9-12) group/club / $1000 Best Buy gift card

College individual (undergraduate or graduate levels) / $1,250 cash

College group/club (undergraduate or graduate levels) / $1,000 Best Buy gift card

Contest rules: This contest is open to high school students in grades 9-12 and to college students at any level. Entries will be placed into one of two categories: individual and group or club. A group or club entry must be from an official sanctioned club or organization.

The independent panel will evaluate videos for clarity of message, impact, production value and relevance to the theme of ethics. Videos become property of the Better Business Bureau and can be used by the BBB and its partners at its discretion. Visit bbbis100.org/ethicsuploaded to see full contest rules.

The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at www.bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 1-800-646-6222. Visit the BBB’s Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

The BBB’s Ethics: Uploaded Video Contest is presented by Best Buy.

Tax season is upon us again and the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) is encouraging taxpayers to do some legwork before selecting tax preparation help. Doing your research ahead of time may help you avoid getting hit with fines and fees if your return isn’t correct or filed late. According to the IRS, taxpayers are legally responsible for what’s on their tax return even if it is prepared by someone else, so, it’s important to choose carefully when hiring an individual or firm to prepare your return.

“For many people, working with a tax preparer provides peace of mind,” said Dana Badgerow, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau. “However, since tax professionals have access to so much of your personal information, you want to be sure to check out their background and qualifications.”

The BBB offers the following advice on how to find a trustworthy tax preparer:

  • Ask around. Get referrals from friends and family on who they use and check BBB reports on tax preparers and tax preparation services at www.bbb.org/search.
  • Look for credentials. Ideally, your tax preparer should either be a certified public accountant, a tax attorney, an enrolled agent or a certified E-file provider. Be sure to find out if the preparer is affiliated with a professional organization that provides or requires its members to pursue continuing education and holds them accountable to a code of ethics.
  • Make sure they have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). A PTIN must be obtained by all tax return preparers who are compensated for preparing or assisting in the preparation of, all or substantially all of any U.S. federal tax return, claim for refund, or other tax form submitted to the IRS.
  • Investigate whether the preparer has any questionable history with your state’s Board of Accountancy (for CPA’s), the State Bar Association (for attorneys) or the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) for enrolled agents.
  • Don’t fall for the promise of big refunds. Be wary of any tax preparation service that promises larger refunds than the competition, and avoid tax preparers who base their fee on a percentage of the refund.
  • Remember that a Paid Preparer is required by law to sign your return and fill in the preparer areas of the form. They should also include their appropriate identifying number on the return. In addition, the preparer must give you a copy of your return.
  • Think about accessibility. Many tax preparation services only set up shop for the months leading up to April 17. In case the IRS finds errors, or in case of an audit, you might need to be able to contact your tax preparer throughout the year; be sure to find out how you would do so.
  • Read the contract carefully. Read tax preparation service contracts closely to ensure you understand issues such as how much it is going to cost for the service, how the cost will be affected if preparation is more complicated and time consuming than expected and whether the tax preparer will represent you in case of an audit.

For more advice on finding professionals you can trust, visit http://www.bbb.org/us/bbb-news.

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The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at www.bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 1-800-646-6222. Visit the BBB’s Centennial website at bbbis100.org.

 

 

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) has been alerted to an out-of-state casket and funeral supply company, which claims to be a veteran’s group. The company, U.S. Patriot Services, lists addresses in Kansas City, Missouri and Rossmoor, California, and a motto on their paperwork claims they are ‘Veterans Serving Veterans.’ Recently, the BBB contacted the company’s national headquarters – in Rossmoor – to learn more about this claim. However, the company has failed to respond to our inquiry.

From a report the BBB received recently, the company seems to be focusing on elderly veterans in the Twin Cities metro area, going door-to-door and selling caskets and funeral urns. Based on how their paperwork is drawn up, the company makes it seem as though they’re offering interment in National Cemeteries free of charge as part of their sales package. However, all U.S. veterans who are honorably discharged from the military are eligible for free interment in National Cemeteries, meaning this is not a benefit U.S. Patriot Services or any other funeral service company can offer.

The BBB is advising area veterans to ask the company to verify that they’re actually a veteran’s organization. In addition, the BBB reminds everyone to always request multiple quotes prior to making any purchase. The report the BBB received regarding U.S. Patriot Services indicates the company may have attempted to charge an area veteran more than double for funeral urns, compared to another funeral service company. According to this report, the veteran was able to get the company to refund his money after being made aware he’d been overcharged.

U.S. Patriot Services’ General Manager, Shawna Estrada, has been linked to other funeral supply companies, including a company called American Veteran KCA. In 2010, that company reached a settlement agreement with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. As part of the settlement with the attorney general, all customers of that company received a letter stating the company was not affiliated with the VA, nor any National Cemetery or governmental agency. In addition, all customers who had purchased caskets from the company were entitled to a full refund as part of the settlement, provided they made that request before a certain date. The company also had to pay a $20,000 fine.

The BBB offers the following tips to families and individuals looking to make funeral arrangements:

  • Be an informed consumer. Take time to call and shop around before making a purchase. Funeral homes are required to provide detailed price lists over the phone or in writing. Product mark-ups can be significant. Ask if lower priced items are included on the price list.
  • Check out the funeral service. Contact the BBB for a report on the funeral home. Check whether the funeral services director or embalmer is licensed.
  • Be wary of outrageous claims. Sellers who claim to have a product or service that will preserve human remains over the long-term are misleading you. Funeral providers cannot determine how long a casket will preserve a body, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to purchase the more expensive “sealed” or “protective” casket. Also, a casket is not legally required for a direct cremation.
  • Research funeral home service fees when shopping for products elsewhere. The Federal Trade Commission’s Web site at www.ftc.gov has information on charges that are prohibitive.
  • Embalming is not always required. You are not required to have embalming if you choose direct cremation or immediate burial.
  • Resist high-priced sales pitches from funeral industry vendors. They should treat you with compassion; not pressure you.
  • Consult a friend or family member. It might be a good idea to take along a friend or relative when you visit the funeral home or talk to a funeral service representative. Someone who is not as emotionally invested as you are can assist with difficult decisions.
  • Get everything in writing. Compare the posted prices and any oral promises with those listed in the contract. The contract should itemize all prices and specify any future costs. Check the contract for any restrictions.
  • Carefully read contracts and purchasing agreements before signing. Ask if the agreements you sign can be voided, taken back or transferred to other funeral homes.
  • Remember, prepaying for a funeral has advantages, as well as risks. If you choose to prepay, make a well-informed decision, carefully research your options and know your rights (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/products/pro19.shtm).  You can always make plans in advance, without prepaying. Be sure to share your specific wishes with those close to you.

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The mission of the Better Business Bureau is to be the leader in building marketplace trust by promoting, through self-regulation, the highest standards of business ethics and conduct, and to instill confidence in responsible businesses through programs of education and action that inform, assist and protect the general public. Our hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact the BBB at www.bbb.org or 651-699-1111, toll-free at 1-800-646-6222.

 

 

 

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/.