2003-10-17 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer
Notes On Consumer Affairs By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Audrey PhefferAudrey Pheffer

Before Thanksgiving is even upon us, we see the beginnings of the December holiday season emerging. In pursuit of getting a jump on holiday shopping and the desire to avoid the rush and long lines associated with the shopping season, people are shopping earlier each year. In the rush to buy gifts, people are not always aware of their rights as a shopper and the fine print found on many gift cards and certificates.

Under New York State law, retail stores are obligated to conspicuously post the stores refund policy. The sign will state whether or not it is the policy of the store to give refunds, and if so, under what conditions. This includes, but not limited to, whether a refund will be given on merchandise that had been advertised as "sale" merchandise or marked "as is," or on merchandise for which no proof of purchase exists. The sign will also address if a refund is restricted to a certain period (i.e., within 14 days, 30 days, etc.), or if a refund will be made in cash, or as credit or store credit.

Therefore, if a merchant offers to give a refund or a credit if the buyer is not fully satisfied with the purchase, the consumer has the right to choose between the two choices. In addition, if a merchant states that it provides for a "money back guarantee," then a full refund shall be made upon return of the item or items. Be sure you understand the policy if you think the item will need to be returned.

A practice that is gaining popularity with merchants involves gift cards and certificates. Next time you purchase a gift card or certificate, be aware of hidden service fees that are detailed on the back of the card or inside the gift card or certificate envelope. These fees can consume the entire amount of the gift. The service fee is explained, in fine print, that if the card is inactive for a period of 12 or 24 months, depending upon the card, a service fee of up to $4 per month may be deducted. Sometimes, the fee is retroactive therefore rendering the card worthless after two years. For example, if you purchase a $25 gift card, and a $2 service fee is retroactive after 24 months of inactivity, the merchant will deduct $48 at the beginning of the 25th month.

Many times, instead of attempting to navigate shopping plazas, people turn to mail order for the ease of at-home shopping. Some items typically purchased through subscription plans are compact discs and DVD’s, books, and magazines. Subscription plans are also know as pre-notification subscription plans and it is governed under the Federal Trade Commission’s Negative Option Rule. This rule requires a consumer’s prior consent as a prerequisite to liability for subsequent shipments not separately and affirmatively ordered. In other words, if you do not expressly reject the merchandise within a prescribed period of time, you will be liable for the costs associated with that item.

The Negative Option Rule requires that operators of pre-notification negative option plans to disclose the terms of membership "clearly and conspicuously" in promotional materials, and send subscribers advanced notice of the planned shipment giving detailed information about how to decline the merchandise. It must also notify subscribers of the circumstances under which they can return merchandise, it mandates that the operator ship introductory or bonus merchandise within four weeks of receipt of an order, and ship substitute merchandise only with the express consent of the subscriber.

It is of great value to you to read the terms and conditions with regard to return and refund policies as well as knowing the terms and conditions associated with gift cards and certificates. Remember, during the upcoming holiday season, one of the most beneficial gifts you can give yourself is the gift of knowledge.

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