SACRAMENTO — California Attorney General Rob Bonta this week reminded residents how to avoid holiday scams and fraud while shopping this season.
Scams, fraud and other consumer-related issues are at play over Black Friday and Cyber Monday as shoppers gear up for gift giving, the AG’s office said.
“Whether you are shopping online or in person, the holiday season is a great time to support your local businesses,” said Bonta. “Unfortunately, it’s also a period when we typically see an uptick in fraud and other scams.”
Bonta’s first tip is a reminder to trust your gut: Be suspicious of a price or deal that seems too good to be true. Chances are, it probably is. You could end up paying for something that is never sent or purchasing a counterfeit or stolen item.
Second, don’t be afraid to read the fine print. Ask the retailer about warranties, delivery dates, tracking numbers and shipping and handling fees so that there are no surprise charges when you check out. Never assume that a store will let you return an item if you change your mind. Refunds are not required by law if a store has clearly displayed a limited or no-refund policy.
In California, retailers that fail to provide a full refund or credit or allow an equal exchange within seven days of purchase with a receipt must clearly display their policy at each cash register, sales counter or public entrance. This requirement does not extend to perishable goods, items marked ‘final sale,’ goods that have been used or damaged after purchase, custom orders, goods not returned in their original packaging, and items that can’t be resold due to health or sanitary issues. If you find that a retailer did not honor this requirement, you can file a complaint with Bonta’s office online.
Remember that search engines can be your friend. Do a quick search of a business to see if a seller is legitimate or trustworthy. Read customer feedback and complaints and make sure the business has a legitimate physical address, phone number and website. To really do a deep dive, you can search the name of the business along with words like “scam,” “fraud” or “lawsuit” to see how they fare.
Using a credit card when you buy may give you more of an ability to dispute or reverse charges, Bonta said, and some credit cards have their own customer warranty, return and purchase protection benefits.
When shopping online, there are a few things you can do to better protect yourself. First, make sure you are using a secure connection, especially before you enter any payment information. Secure sites generally begin with an URL starting with “https,” with the “s” meaning it is secure. A lock icon may also appear near the URL if the site is secure. Bonta advises that no one should ever send credit card, social security number or checking account information via email. It’s also wise to close any accounts you have on websites and apps that you no longer need or use.
Scammers have gotten savvier by using text messages as well, especially promising discount codes or access to “exclusive” sales. Never open a link from an unsolicited text message. You could be exposing yourself to a scam, hacker, or downloadable malware, or your information can end with annoying call list spammers.
Finally, Bonta warns of the pitfalls of “buy now pay later” and zero-interest offers. Financing that allows you to pay later usually comes with a hefty interest payment and even late fees. Late payments can hurt your credit rating. Before agreeing to enter into a buy now, pay later agreement, make sure to examine the terms carefully, figure out your total debt over the life of the financing and determine what will happen if you can’t make your payments.
As for zero-interest financing, the vast majority of people who qualify for that have “near perfect” credit, according to Bonta. Such deals will probably also require a down payment and will have limits on what is actually available to purchase at that zero rate. Most importantly, check to see if that zero-interest rate is just for an introductory period, eventually shifting to a high-interest rate that will be expected from you as part of the terms.
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