Before You Shop

Before you make a purchase, do your research, and know your rights.

Plan a Purchase

Use these tips before you make a purchase to avoid problems and make informed decisions:

Do Your Research

  • Set a budget. Decide how much you can afford and are willing to pay.
  • Decide in advance what features and qualifications you need. Some products and services can come with a wide range of features or levels or service. 
  • Ask trusted family and friends that have bought the same type of product recently for advice based on their experience.
  • Gather information on the service you are purchasing and about the seller. Check out a company’s complaint record with your local consumer affairs office and Better Business Bureau.
  • Review product test results from consumer experts and comments from past customers. 
  • Find out if the product has been recalled. You can check the website or directly with the manufacturer.

Make the Purchase

  • Get price quotes from several sellers.
  • Get a copy of your free credit report, if you plan to make a purchase that requires financing. This can also help you see whether or not you qualify for a favorable interest rate. 
  • Make sure the seller has all appropriate licenses. Doctors, lawyers, contractors, and other service providers must register with a state or local licensing agency.
  • Get a written copy of guarantees and warranties.
  • Get the seller’s refund, return, and cancellation policies.
  • Ask whom to contact if you have a question or problem.
  • Read and understand any contract or legal document you are asked to sign or give agreement to online (by clicking “I Agree”). Make sure there are no blank spaces or incomplete terms. Insist that any extras you are promised be put in writing.
  • Consider paying by credit card. If you have a problem, you can dispute a charge made on your credit card.
  • Don’t buy on impulse or under pressure; this includes donating to charity.

After You Buy

  • Know your rights to cancel. If you cancel an online or catalog purchase, your money must be refunded within seven working days or within one billing cycle, if you charged it. Some purchases that you made in your home or a temporary business location may be canceled according to the 3-Day Cooling Off Rule.
  • Save all papers that come with your purchase. Keep copies of all contracts, sales receipts, canceled checks, owner's manuals, warranties, and other documents related to your purchase.
  • Read and follow product and service instructions. The way you use or take care of a product might affect your warranty rights.  
  • Stay alert to price reductions. You may be able to get a refund for the difference if the price of the item you bought decreases within a certain number of days of the purchase.
  • Find out how to dispute a purchase based on if you paid with cash, credit card, a mobile app, or payment device.
  • File a complaint, if you have a problem with the product or service you purchased.

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Research a Business or Nonprofit

Before conducting business with a company or donating to a charity, do your research. You can find information about the trustworthiness and financial status of a business or nonprofit from various sources:


Any reputable business or nonprofit must have all the appropriate licenses:

Complaints History

Review the complaints record of a company or charity to determine its trustworthiness:

Financial and Tax Records

Find out if a company is making money or losing money, and why, before you do business with it. Check the federal tax status and filings of an Exempt Organization (EO) before donating money to it:

  • The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provides information about a company's finances or financial records.
  • Contact the U.S. Commercial Service, which can provide financial background checks on companies based outside the U.S.
  • Find out from the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) whether a company is a corporation in good standing and has filed annual reports with the state through the secretary of state where the company is incorporated.
  • Use the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS') Exempt Organizations Select Check search tool to look up information about tax-exempt organizations, such as whether they are eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable donations.
  • GuideStar provides data on nonprofits and community foundations from several IRS sources.

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Shopping Online

Online shopping websites often offer great deals, variety, and convenience. However, you need to be careful and make informed decisions about online purchases. Some tips for shopping safely online:

  • Use websites that are known or recommended.
  • Compare prices and deals, including free shipping, and extended service contracts.
  • Search for online coupons, known as promo codes, which may offer discounts or free shipping.
  • Get a complete description of the item and parts included, and the price, including shipping, delivery time, warranty information, return policy, and complaint procedure.
  • Verify the full price of the item, not just the advertised price. Check out surcharges and fees before you buy.
  • Read product and seller reviews from past customers and independent experts.
  • Pay with a credit card. Federal law protects you if you need to dispute charges, but it does not apply to debit cards, checks, cash, money orders, or other forms of payment.
  • Use a secure browser. Look for a URL that starts with “https” rather than “http.” Also look for a closed padlock icon, usually in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  • Avoid making online purchases on public Wi-Fi hotspots; these may not be secure, and your payment information could be stolen over the network.
  • Save your purchase order with details of the product and your confirmation number.
  • Find out if your purchase qualifies for discounted or free shipping.

The Federal Trade Commission offers more information about shopping online.

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Gift Cards

Gift cards can be a convenient way to pay for purchases at retailers or restaurants, but you should be aware of their terms and conditions. Before buying or using a gift card, keep these things in mind:

  • Trust - Only buy gift cards from sources you know and trust. Avoid buying gift cards from online auction sites, because they may be fake or may have been obtained fraudulently. Check the financial condition of the retailer or restaurant, as this can affect the value and ease of use of the card. 
  • Authorization receipt - Make sure you, or the person using the gift card, saves this and other printed material. This proves that money has been loaded onto the card.
  • Where you can use the card - Store gift cards can only be used at the store where you bought it (or related stores). Other gift cards that carry the logo of a payment card network can be used wherever the brand is accepted.
  • Fees - Some gift cards may include fees to buy, use, or replace the card. If you do not use the card within one year, you may be charged a monthly inactivity fee.
  • Expiration dates - This information must appear on the card, and fees must be disclosed either on the card or its packaging. Money on a gift card cannot expire for at least five years from the date the card was purchased, or from the last date more money was added to the card (whichever is later).
  • Lost or stolen cards - Check the rules for a lost or stolen card, including whether you will be charged a fee to replace it. Store-branded cards typically cannot be replaced.

Gift Card Problems or Complaints

If you have an issue with a gift card, contact the customer service department listed on the card. If you cannot resolve the problem, you may file a complaint with the proper authorities:

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A product warranty is the promise that a manufacturer or seller makes to stand behind a product's quality. Federal law requires that warranties be available for you to read before you buy. A standard warranty is part of the item you purchased, and there is no additional cost for this protection from the company. There are three main types of warranties:

  • Written warranties are printed and come along with the item you purchased. In order for a written warranty to take effect or to make a claim against it, the seller or manufacturer may require you to perform maintenance or use the item as instructed.
  • Spoken warranties are spoken by a salesperson, or other staff at a retailer or service provider, for services like free repairs. 
  • Implied warranties promise that the item you purchased will do what it is supposed to do and that it can work under the circumstances that it was designed for. 

If you purchase an item and it doesn't have a written warranty, it is still covered under the implicit warranty laws in your state, unless it was marked "as is" when you purchased it.

Service Contracts

Service contracts or “extended warranties” extend the guarantee that a product will work, and are purchased for an additional cost. Sellers offer these service contracts at the time of or after your purchase. They are commonly offered when you buy a car, major electronics, or household appliances. Third party firms (not the manufacturer or the seller) may also try to sell you an extended warranty. Some extended warranties duplicate the warranty coverage that you get automatically from a manufacturer or seller. 

Problems with Warranties

File a complaint about a warranty with the retailer; if the retailer can't help, contact the manufacturer. If neither the retailer or manufacturer can help, file a complaint with your local consumer protection agency.

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Returns and Exchanges

Sometimes you may need to return or exchange an item you purchased. Retailers can create their own return policies, as long as they are posted in a place that customers can find them easily. To make your return or exchange go smoothly:

  • Read the seller's return exchange and refund policy before you make your purchase. 
  • Present your original receipt, gift receipt, or packing slip.
  • Find out if there is a restocking fee for the return.
  • Check for the number of days you have to return or exchange the item. If you have to ship it back, take days in transit into account. 
  • Find out if you must use a trackable shipping method or insure the item that you are sending back to the seller. This is often required for large electronics, art, or other expensive purchases.
  • In most cases, the item you're returning must be unopened or unused.
  • Send back all the required pieces, accessories, and instructions that were included with the item. Some sellers may not give you a refund if these items are missing. 

Refunds are normally given in the same form of payment that you used to buy the item. If you don’t have a receipt, the seller may give you a store credit instead. Exchanges may be limited to a "like" item, if the item is available. Some retailers may charge you a restocking fee if you return electronics or appliances. If you bought an item online, check the seller's website to find out if return shipping is free and use the return label if they provided one. If your online purchase came from a seller that also has traditional "brick and mortar" stores, find out if you can return the item to a nearby store. Contact your state consumer office to find out if it offers more protections with returns and exchanges. Also, your credit card issuer may extend the window of time that you can return an item that you purchased with that card. Check with your issuer to find out if that is a benefit of your credit card. 

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Last Updated: March 19, 2018