Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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ASK THE ATTORNEY GENERAL: " 'Tis the Season to be Savvy "

For most people the holidays are a happy time of year, but very often they can also be the most stressful time of the year.  In the rush to shop, decorate and prepare for the season, many consumers make hasty decisions that could be costly to them.  I strongly urge consumers to read and follow these tips to avoid possible scams and make the holiday season happy and safe.

How can I avoid overspending during the holidays?

The holidays are a time of increased shopping and spending.  A good way to avoid spending more than you can afford is to create a budget.  Compile a list of everyone you are shopping for and give each person a monetary limit. Consider all your options before buying.  Check prices online, in catalogs and at retail stores.  Knowing how much money you have to spend and what you want to buy will save you from making costly "impulse purchases."

Should I worry about returns or exchanges now?

Absolutely!   It is always best to ask about refund and exchange policies before you make a purchase.  Remember retailers can set and must comply with their own return and exchange policies.  Make sure to thoroughly check receipts after you make a purchase; to be sure the cashier charged you correctly.  Keep all of your receipts, especially if you expect a full refund on a returned item after the holidays.  If possible, remember to ask for a gift receipt.  Also, be cautious when shopping at unfamiliar or seasonal kiosks.  Ask proprietors if they will be around after the holiday season for returns.

Is shopping online safe?

Online shopping is fairly safe, providing you are using a secure server.  Make sure that you know the companies from whom you are purchasing and that they are reputable.  If purchasing items from EBay or similar auction services be sure to read seller profiles carefully and research their seller histories.  Make sure you are aware delivery times, delivery costs and return policies for online purchases.

If I purchase a gift card for someone, will they have an adequate amount of time to redeem it?

Unredeemed gift certificates are governed by Pennsylvania's "unclaimed property law" and after the specified amount of time they are turned over to Pennsylvania's Department of Treasury in the certificate holder's name.  If there is no expiration date specified on the card, the holder has five-years from the date of issuance to use the card.  If there is a specified expiration date, the card becomes unclaimed property two-years after it expires.

How can I keep my home safe during the holiday season?
Decorating can cause unexpected problems in the home.  Check all old indoor and outdoor lights for frayed wires, loose connections, broken or cracked sockets and spots where bare wire is exposed.  If you purchase a live tree too early in the season it will dry out.  Be sure to keep your tree watered, since brittle branches and dry limbs can pose a fire hazard.  Keep small ornaments and other small holiday decorations away from children and pets.  Remember that when the holidays are over to remove all outdoor lights and to safely dispose of trees.

How do I know if a charity is legitimate?

Donate to charities that are familiar to you.  If you do not recognize a charity and they are not willing to provide you with additional information upon request, avoid doing business with them.  You should always request written information about the organization.  A legitimate charity will give you materials outlining their mission and how your donation will be used.    If you still have questions about a particular charitable organization, check with the Attorney General's Charitable Trusts Section or the Pennsylvania Department of State's Bureau of Charitable Organization

Can I ask how much of my donation will actually go to charity?

Definitely!  Under the Pennsylvania Charities Act, an organization is required to truthfully answer how much of your donation will be spent on charitable purposes as opposed to fund-raising or administrative expenses.

Should I avoid giving money to door-to-door solicitors?

Giving to charities that go door-to-door is fine as long as you make sure the solicitor is truly representing the charity.  Always ask for identification.  Pennsylvania requires paid fund-raisers to identify themselves as such and to name the charity for which they are soliciting.  If the solicitor refuses, do not donate to the charity and report the incident to local officials.

If you are interested in more information on holiday spending or charitable giving you can visit the Attorney General's website at www.attorneygeneral.gov or contact the Attorney General's Charitable Trusts Section at 717-783-2853.  I wish you and your family a happy, healthy and safe holiday season.