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 Recalls.gov 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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Recalled Products

Learn what recalls are and where to go to find out about recalled products.

A recall is an action taken by a manufacturer, or the government, to protect the public from products (such as medications, food, vehicles, child safety seats, cosmetics, and more) that may cause health or safety problems.

Some recalls ban the sale of an item, while others ask consumers to return the item for replacement or repair. Sometimes, a seller will provide a part that reduces the danger of using the product.

Before you buy a product, especially a used or secondhand one, be sure to check that the manufacturer has not recalled it. If you are buying a product for a child, such as toys, clothing, cribs, and costume jewelry, be especially careful. Visit these websites to find the latest on safety recalls:

  • Recalls.gov lists government-initiated recalls from federal agencies. You can sign up for free e-mail notifications on recalls.
  • Safercar.gov publishes safety information on vehicles and equipment such as children's car seats.
  • FSIS.USDA.gov lists recalls that involve meat, sausage, poultry, and processed egg products.
  • FDA.gov lists recalls that involve food (non-meat products; fruits; vegetables; seafood; shelled eggs; infant formulas), medicines, medical devices, cosmetics, biologics, radiation emitting products, veterinary drugs, and pet food.
  • Foodsafety.gov publishes notices of food recalls and alerts from both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • SaferProducts.gov allows you to report incidents and safety concerns with consumer products, and search for incidents reported by other consumers.

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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:

  • Stick to websites that are known or recommended.
  • Compare prices and deals, including free shipping, extended service contracts, or other offers.
  • 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.
  • Read reviews from other consumers 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.
  • Print or save your purchase order with details of the product and your confirmation number.
  • Find out if your purchase qualifies for discounted or free shipping. Some retailers offer free shipping if your purchase is delivered to a nearby store location, instead of your home.

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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Warranties

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, even when you are shopping by catalog or on the Internet, so that you can comparison shop. 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. If you receive this kind of warranty, have the person who gave it and their manager put it in writing. Otherwise, you may not be able to get the service that was promised to you.
  • 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. These warranties are created by state laws, and are not specifically stated or written.

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 or promise that a product will work, and are purchased for an additional cost. Sellers offer these service contracts at the time of purchase, and sometimes months or years 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 even make cold calls to you with high pressure sales tactics. Some extended warranties duplicate the warranty coverage that you get automatically from a manufacturer or seller. These add-ons may not be worth the cost. Ask these questions before you agree to one of these contracts:

  • Does the dealer, the manufacturer, or an independent company back the service contract?
  • How are claims handled? Who will do the work and where will it be done?
  • What happens to your coverage if the dealer or administrator goes out of business?
  • Do you need prior authorization for repair work?
  • Are there any situations when coverage can be denied? You may not have protection from common wear and tear. And some manufacturers do not honor contracts if you fail to follow their recommendations for routine maintenance.

Problems with Warranties

If you have problems receiving the services that were promised in your warranty, you can report your dispute. First read your warranty to make sure you know your rights. Then you can file a complaint 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. Most retailers' policies require you to return the item within a set number of days, with your receipt, and original packaging. The return window may be longer for items bought near the holiday shopping season. Some items that are often not permitted to be returned include:

  • Items that are specially made or customized for you
  • Digital books and music
  • Items that you damaged or tampered with
  • Items that have been used or opened 
  • Gift cards 

Refunds are normally given in the same form of payment that you used to buy the item, while others may only offer store credit. If you don’t have a receipt, the seller may give you a store credit instead. 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. 

Exchanges may be limited to a "like" item, if the item is available. For online purchases, you may have to call the retailer's customer service number to initiate the exchange.

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. 

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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