It seems like every year at this time we begin to hear daily reports of scams involving charitable giving, along with stories of disappointed consumers who, at first glance, seem to have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous merchants. At a time when people are motivated by good will — but in a hurry to get too many things done in too little time — we are sometimes not as cautious as we might otherwise be. Here are some basics to keep in mind, and some handy resources that might be helpful. I’ve also included links to more information from the Consumer Alert section of the Michigan Attorney General’s website. Click here for the Index of Consumer Alerts.
Charitable Giving. The holiday season brings with it pleas from every charity imaginable for donations. Before you write that check or give that toy, remember:
• You have a right to know the name, address and phone number of the charity;
• Ask how much of your donation will actually be used for the charity’s purposes (in some cases this can be less than 10% of your donation);
• Ask what programs the charity supports and if annual reports are available;
• If important to you, ask if the organization has 501(c)(3) status under the Internal Revenue Code so that your donation will be tax deductible. Click here for more on ‘Tis The Season For Wise Charitable Giving.
Returns. All merchants (either online or brick and mortar) do not handle returns the same way. As troublesome as return policies may seem, their goal is to prevent retail fraud, the cost of which is passed on to consumers in higher prices. To avoid disappointment:
• Find out what the return policy is before you make a purchase;
• Is there a deadline for making returns? Or a receipt required?
• Will you receive a refund or only a store credit?
• If an online purchase, who pays for return shipping?
• For online purchases, do returns require advance consent? Read more on Avoiding Unhappy Returns.
Gift Cards and Gift Certificates. Few states have laws regulating returns, but many states (Michigan included) and federal laws do regulate gift cards and gift certificates. For example:
• In general, gift cards purchased after August 22, 2010, cannot expire within five (5) years of purchase;
• Terms and conditions of use must be disclosed and cannot be changed after the gift card is purchased;
• Inactivity or service fees can’t be charged against the value of the card;
• Gift cards issued by financial institutions have different rules.
Rules won’t help you much if the vendor is out of business: only buy gift cards from merchants who look like they will be viable for the long haul. Click here for information on Gift Cards and Gift Certificates.
Protect Yourself When Shopping Online. To avoid some of the risks associated with online shopping:
• Never give out your social security number;
• Research the website before you place an order;
• Only shop using secure websites;
• Minimize the amount of information you give when placing an order online;
• Consider using one credit card, with a low credit limit, for all online purchases;
• Keep your firewall and anti-virus programs up to date;
• Avoid shipping and return charges;
• Print and keep all receipts.
‘Tis The Season For Protecting Yourself When Making Purchases, click here to learn more.