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Before You Buy

Being a smart consumer in a world with so many products and services can be somewhat daunting. With so many options available, it is easy to get overwhelmed with major purchase decisions- from the initial research, visiting stores to look at actual products, and then deciding which item to purchase, there are a lot of factors to consider. Fortunately, the Consumer Action Handbook is here to make the purchasing process easier and help you get the most for your money. Keep reading to learn more about this valuable resource.

Before you begin your search for a new product, it is always helpful to assess your needs and what you can realistically afford. Although many companies produce or sell the item that you want, there can be a wide range of features and prices charged for what seems like a very easy purchase. Deciding what you need in advance helps to narrow the focus of your search and avoid paying for bells and whistles that you do not need.

In order to know what you should look for, you will need to do some preliminary research. There are a variety of sources of valuable information to consult during this step. Your research can be as simple as talking to trusted family and friends that have bought the same type of product recently or picking up a copy of Consumer Reports for unbiased ratings about the products. More than just the product itself, you should also be concerned about the type of customer service that the manufacturer or retailer has provided. Be sure to contact the Better Business Bureau or your local consumer affairs department to determine if any other consumers have filed a complaint against the companies you may possibly work with on your purchase.

Ready, Set, Shop

Once you have done your basic research, it’s time to start shopping. This could mean reading the sales flyers in the newspaper to get an understanding of the price ranges for the products you are looking for. If you are making a purchase that requires financing, such as a car or home, you may also want get a free copy of your credit report to see if you can qualify for a favorable interest rate.

You should now go and look at actual models in person. It may be helpful to take along the wishlist and your budget to keep you focused on your requirements for the item you choose. Keep in mind that there will be sales support on hand in the store; ask them to clarify facts, definitions, or other technical details rather than considering them as your advocate. Remain committed to your initial research and budget so you can avoid making an impulse decision or being pressured by sales staff to buy something that is more expensive than you need.

Once you have narrowed down the field to the item that you want and can afford, be sure to ask about service, return and refund policies, other fees, and the manufacturer warranties. If possible get all of the company’s policies and procedures in writing. Some companies offer extended warranties or service contracts for your purchases. Before agreeing to purchase this additional coverage, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Who manages the warranty (the manufacturer, the seller, or a third party)?
  • How is this coverage different from the manufacturer’s product warranty?
  • How are claims handled?

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Beware of Grey Charges

“What’s this charge?” may be your first thought when you see a small charge on your credit card statement that you cannot figure out. These are known as “grey charges” and there are several common types:

  • Unintended subscriptions. You thought you made a one time purchase, but it was really a subscription.
  • Zombie fees. Membership fees that you had cancelled, but the fees will not stop.
  • Free trial to paid. When a free trial is over the seller converts it to a paid subscription.
  • Negative option. You bought one product, but did not realize that you were buying others at the same time.

Take these steps to protect yourself from grey charges:

  • Before you buy, read the terms of service. Disclosures about fees may be hidden or near the end, so read the entire document.
  • Mark your calendar as a reminder to cancel free trials by a set date.
  • Read your credit card statements closely. Pay attention to the names of companies and charges for small amounts.
  • Contact the seller to have the grey charges removed.
  • Dispute the charges with your credit card company.

Drip Pricing

Have you ever planned to make a purchase, only to find out that there are additional, sometimes mandatory, fees that weren’t included in the advertised price? The total cost is not revealed until the end of the purchasing process. If so, you have been the victim of drip pricing. This practice makes it difficult for consumers to determine the full cost and compare similar options, when all the fees aren’t disclosed up front. You can protect yourself by reading the policies before completing the sale and asking questions of sales personnel. Also, if you have charged your purchase on your credit card, you may be able to dispute the extra fees if they are more than you had agreed to with the seller.