Shop smart online this holiday season – National Consumers League

As Americans return to the workplace next Monday after the long holiday weekend, many will spend a portion of their day surfing the Internet for deals from online retailers. Monday, December 2 — “Cyber Monday” – is what the retail industry claims to be one of, if not the, busiest Internet shopping days of the year, and with more and more consumers opting to avoid the mall, e-shopping next week is expected to be higher than ever. Spending on Cyber Monday is expected to be in the billions of dollars.Whether consumers do their shopping online at the workplace or at home, advocates are reminding them to practice safe e-shopping habits in the coming weeks and year-round. The Internet can make your shopping faster and easier, but there can also be pitfalls if you’re not careful. There are ways to ensure you have a safe online shopping experience, so that gift-giving is a joyous occasion, not an opportunity for cyber thieves.

NCL’s Top Ten Cyber Monday Shopping Tips

  1. Don’t shop online on an unencrypted or open wireless network. As convenient as they seem, an airport or coffee shop’s wireless network is not an appropriate place to conduct financial transactions. Entering personal financial information over an unsecured connection may leave your computer open the to hackers and thieves to capture your financial information. Home Wi-Fi networks can also be compromised, so consumers should find out how to secure their connections.
  2. Secure your computer before shopping online. Before connecting to the Internet or shopping online, take the following three core protections: 1) Install anti-virus and anti-spyware programs and keep them up to date; 2) Install a personal firewall; 3) Regularly update operating system and anti-virus programs to current protections.
  3. Know who you’re dealing with. Before shopping online with an unknown e-store, check out the seller and be sure to get the name and physical address of the vendor in case something goes wrong. If you’re buying gifts on an online auction site, check the track record of the seller before you bid.
  4. Pay the safest way – by credit card, especially when you’re purchasing something that will be delivered later. Under federal law you can dispute the charges if you don’t get what you were promised. You may also dispute unauthorized charges on your credit card. Consider using a “virtual” credit card number.  These numbers replace your plastic credit card number with a new number that is linked to your real account number.  When you’re prompted to enter your credit card number at checkout, you enter the virtual number instead of the real number.  These “virtual” numbers can be set to have a low credit limit, to only work at certain Web sites, or to expire after a certain period of time (two months from date of purchase is a good rule of thumb).  This way, if the Web site you’re shopping at is compromised, the crooks likely won’t be able to run up charges on your real credit account since the virtual number.  A note of caution, however: think twice before using a virtual credit card number for services where you will be billed repeatedly or for things like rental car reservations, since the card may not be billed until you pick up the car.
  5. Only shop on safe sites. When providing payment information, the Web site URL address should change from “http” to “https,” (or, less frequently, “shttp”) indicating that the purchase is encrypted or secured. Look for an icon on the browser (generally in the bottom right of the window), such as an image of a padlock closing, to indicate that the page is secure.
  6. Don’t fall for a phishing email or pop-up. Legitimate companies don’t send unsolicited email messages asking for your password, login name, or your financial information. But scammers do, and it’s called “phishing.” Crooks often send emails that look like they’re from legitimate companies – but direct you to click on a link, where they ask for your personal information. Delete these emails.
  7. Be careful when shopping for a gift in an online auction. Consumers sometimes turn to auctions for harder-to-find collectibles or expensive electronics. Understand how the auction works, and check out the seller’s reputation before you bid. Use safe ways to pay, like a credit card. If you use a 3rd party payment system, read the terms carefully to understand what protection, if any, it offers if you don’t receive what you were promised. Always ask about terms of delivery and return options. Be especially wary of auctions that ask for payment via wire transfer.
  8. Turn your computer off when you’re finished shopping. Many people leave their computers running 24/7, the dream scenario for scammers who want to install malicious software—“malware”—on your machine and then control it remotely to enable them to commit cyber crime. To be extra safe, switch off your computer when you are not using it.
  9. Don’t be tempted by offers of free money. Con artists take advantage of cash-strapped consumers during the holidays to offer personal loans or credit cards for a fee upfront. These scammers simply take the money and run. Beware of emails offering loans or credit, especially if you have credit problems.
  10. Visit to learn more about protecting yourself from online scams year-round and to report suspicious sites, sellers, or scams. You don’t have to be a victim to report a scam, and your information will help law enforcement go after cyber grinches.

Above all, look into the business or individual with whom you are doing business before making the transaction. For more information on avoiding scams throughout the year, visit

Stress-free gift returns – National Consumers League

Lining up for post-holiday sales and returns? To help ease the burden of returns, the National Consumers League, the nation’s oldest consumer group, offers advice for increasing the chances of successful — and painless — holiday gift returns.

As surely as people buy holiday gifts, they also return holiday gifts. Returning merchandise successfully — and getting a refund you’re satisfied with — can pose a few challenges any time of year, but there are a number of things consumers can do before the return, or even before the purchase, to reduce stress, ease the process, and increase the odds of a successful transaction.

Know a store’s return policy before you buy. When you buy, know what you’re getting into — whether the return will be in the form of cash or store credit, at full price, the price that was paid by the purchaser, or some more recent marked-down price. Know whether having the receipt factors into this so you can decide whether politely going back to the gift giver to ask for the receipt is warranted.

Keep a paper trail. Go to the trouble of saving receipts from the beginning and keeping them handy in case there’s a need for a return. Having a receipt dramatically increases the chances of an outcome that’s to your liking.

As a gift-giver, give items in their full packaging. And as a recipient, don’t open the packaging of anything you know you don’t want to keep, particularly electronics. Policies that don’t allow returns for opened electronics items are common. If they do take it back, they may withhold a certain percentage of the return price and call it a “restocking fee.”

Spend your gift cards. They may lose value over time, so look at the fine print and spend them before they expire.

Prepare yourself for the worst. Stores have been tracking customers’ return habits for years. Some retailers subscribe to services that keep track of what consumers are purchasing and bringing back in an attempt to curb consumer return fraud — the returning of stolen goods. For honest consumers, this can cause problems, as some stores limit the amount of return activity to a certain number or value of annual merchandise returns. There’s a possibility if you’ve returned a lot of merchandise, you’ll be denied.

Be smart. Don’t wear it. Don’t damage it. Increase the chance of having a successful return by taking care of the item on its way back to the store and being a pleasant, polite customer. The post-holidays are stressful enough. Don’t contribute with a less-likely-to-be-helped attitude.

Check out the return policy of an online purchase. You may be able to bring it in-person to the brick-and-mortar store. You may have to pay to send it back, or the vendor may have provided you with a pre-paid postage slip. Or you may not be able to return it at all. Read the delivery information and return instructions for anything you purchase online, particularly if it’s meant to be a gift.

Eating right on a budget – National Consumers League

It takes planning and willpower to make healthy food choices, regardless of one’s financial situation, but for those on a tight budget, getting healthy food on the table proves even more difficult. 

No matter your financial constraints, however, it IS possible to create healthy, delicious meals – all it takes is foresight, creativity, and a bit of effort! To make your food budget stretch further in the healthy choices department, follow these tips:

Plan ahead and make a list

Plan a menu for the week, using grocery store sale ads as a guide and incorporating main ingredients into several meals. Make a list of items you need, and stick to your list at the store. Don’t forget to check the pantry before planning meals or buying staple items – you may already have key ingredients to put to good use. Good planning, and shopping only once a week when possible, will enable you to reduce waste, save time, and save gas money.

Buy the right fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables can be incredibly expensive, but they don’t have to be. Seek out produce that is in season in your area, as it generally costs less (and tastes better!). Stay away from pre-chopped, pre-sliced fruits and vegetables, which save time but cost far more than their whole counterparts. Frozen fruits and vegetables are always a great choice, as they are affordable, always ripe (they are flash-frozen at peak ripeness), and can be used in small or large quantities without waste.

Choose whole grains

Whole grains are far more healthful than their refined counterparts and add an affordable nutritional boost to any meal. They have a long shelf life, and many stores sell whole grains from bulk bins, enabling you to purchase only the amount you need. Try using brown rice instead of white, choosing whole wheat bread instead of white, and experimenting with quinoa, barley, and buckwheat. Making whole grains and vegetables the main part of a meal – and serving meat, poultry, or fish as a “side dish” – creates a cheaper, and healthier, plate.

Eat more beans, less beef (and poultry)

Beans are an inexpensive source of protein and fiber, with the added bonus of a long shelf life. Dried beans will give you the most bang for your buck, but canned beans, which are still fairly cheap, are easier to use. Serve beans in salads, pasta dishes, soups, burritos, and chili, or make them the main component of a quick, healthy, meatless, and inexpensive meal.

Bring a brown bag

Although it takes a few extra minutes, packing a brown bag lunch is nearly always cheaper – and healthier – than buying a midday meal during the work or school day. Before you take your weekly shopping trip, plan out packable lunches for the week. Leftovers also make great lunches!

Purchase fewer packaged and processed foods

Meal replacement bars, snack packs, and other packaged, processed foods tend not only to be expensive but to contain ingredient after ingredient that one cannot pronounce. Whenever possible, substitute whole foods for these products (an apple with peanut butter, yogurt and fruit, homemade trail mix), for a healthier diet that saves serious cash. For an added boost to your wallet, buy larger bags of snacks instead of 100-calorie packs, and make your own single servings with plastic bags after you arrive home.

Buy in bulk

When done right, buying in bulk can save both time and money. Focus your bulk purchases on products that you use frequently enough that you will consume them before they spoil or pass their “use by” date. Make a bulk-buying trip with a friend who enjoys similar foods, and split items that you both use, but that are too large for your household’s use before expiration.  Remember that not all bulk items actually save you money, so check the unite price and ensure that you’re getting a good buy before making a purchase.

Find the store brand

Grocery stores sell their own brand of many of the name brand products they offer. These store brands are almost always less expensive and are usually exactly or almost the same as the pricier name brands. Check next to, below, or above the name brand products you usually consume to see if a cheaper alternative exists.

Grow produce in the garden

It doesn’t require a large plot of land, a lot of effort, or more than a few dollars to grow a few fruit or vegetable plants, but the payoff is significant. Plant tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, or other favorites, and reap the nutritional and cost-saving rewards of your labors all summer long.

Add Twitter to your customer service arsenal – National Consumers League

Consumers exhausted by customer service phone lines – and the muzak they’re subject to while waiting to speak with a real live human – are increasingly turning to an alternative: Twitter.

“Your business is very important to us, please remain on the line and a customer service representative will assist you in the order your call was received.”

“Due to extremely high call volume, your wait time is estimated to be…”

Many of us are all-too-familiar with these and other phrases that accompany the soothing muzak used by many companies to manage our limited patience when we’re on hold with their customer service departments. Unfortunately, even after a human is eventually reached, consumers often find that by the time they hang up the phone, the issue they called about remains unresolved. What can a frustrated consumer do?

One alternative that consumers are increasingly turning to is Twitter. By now, many of us are using Twitter, a social networking and microblogging Web site that allows its users to post short messages (known as “tweets”) that can be read by our “followers.” Use of Twitter has exploded in the past few years. At last count, Twitter users were tweeting nearly 50 millions tweets per day. 

Since Twitter is a public service, consumers’ tweets are visible to everyone on the Internet (unless the user blocks access to his or her account). Twitter has become a powerful megaphone for consumers. In the past, if a customer had a problem with a company, their negative experience was communicated mostly to friends and associates by word-of-mouth. In recent years, consumers have started voicing business reviews on the Internet, via blogs or review sites. With Twitter, there is even greater potential for thousands of users to hear – many, instantly – about bad experiences. For companies that are eager to protect their reputations, this is an issue they would be wise to manage. 

Numerous companies are doing just that — assigning staff to monitor Twitter for customers who are dissatisfied and respond directly (via Twitter) to that customer. Many Fortune 500 companies have set up their own Twitter accounts, allowing customers to direct their tweets to a designated Twitter agent for a particular company (via Twitter’s “@” reference system). Companies as varied as Comcast, JetBlue, Wachovia, Bank of America, UPS, and Blue Cross Blue Shield have set up Twitter accounts to complement their traditional customer service lines.

While the quality of Twitter-based customer service varies from company to company, consumers who have tweeted about their bad experiences have frequently received much quicker and more competent follow-up from the companies they’ve tweeted about.

So how can frustrated consumers make use of Twitter to improve their customer service experience? Here are some tips and tricks that might help:

  1. Try the conventional method first. Most companies have dedicated customer service lines that can address common problems, though time spent on hold should be expected.
  2. While you’re on hold, use a search engine to search for “[company name] Twitter.” This will usually bring up a list of Twitter accounts associated with a particular company.
  3. If the traditional customer service route doesn’t solve the problem, tweet away! Be succinct in your tweet (Twitter has a 140 character limit on tweets) and reference one or more of the Twitter accounts for the company in question, using the “@” reference. Example: “The widget I ordered from @acmewidgets showed up broken today. Customer service was no help.”
  4. Keep your expectations reasonable. Some companies have set up their Twitter accounts primarily to tweet about company news, not respond to customer complaints. Review the last few tweets of a particular company’s Twitter account to make sure your tweet goes to the right account.
  5. If you are contacted by a representative of the company, take your conversation to email or phone. This is a better way to describe the exact problem and get it fixed quickly.
  6. Look for Verified Accounts. Twitter’s openness has led to numerous accounts impersonating real companies or celebrities. Look for accounts that have been verified as legit by Twitter. Note that Verified Accounts for businesses are still in the beta, or testing, stage, so don’t rely on this exclusively.
  7. If your tweet led to the problem being solved, tweet about that, too! Companies will be more likely to help you and others in the future if they know that going the extra mile on Twitter led to positive feedback for all the world to see.

Twitter is a valuable tool in the consumer’s toolbox for resolving customer service issues. If going the usual route of calling the customer service line doesn’t solve your problem, don’t be afraid to try Twitter to express your displeasure. The old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease has never been truer.

Mobile commerce: what’s all the buzz? – National Consumers League

You may have seen advertisements for things you can purchase using your wireless phone, such as jokes or ring tones. This new form of shopping, called mobile commerce, lets consumers order products or services using their phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs), with the charges usually appearing on their next wireless bill. NCL’s got the latest on how mobile commerce works and what to watch out for.

How mobile commerce works

Products and services may be offered on either a per-item or an ongoing subscription basis. It’s important to understand that the price and terms of the offer are set by the company selling the product or service, not by your wireless service provider.

Let’s say an advertisement for a ringtone catches your eye online or on TV. This could be a chart-topping musical hit, a popular television theme tune or a sound effect. You are usually provided what is called a “short-code” (Example: Hip1234). To make a purchase, you typically send a text message from your wireless phone to the seller at the number shown in the advertisement and type in the short-code for the ringtone you’ve chosen. The seller sends instructions for downloading the ringtone to your phone, and the corresponding charge will appear on your next wireless bill.

If the offer is for a single ringtone, you will be charged once; if it is a subscription package that enables you to download up to a certain number of ringtones in a specific time period, there may be monthly charges on your wireless bill.

Alternatively, you might pre-arrange to have the charges for products or services you’re going to purchase billed to a credit card or debited from a bank account or prepaid account.

Unfortunately, some sellers don’t make the cost or terms of their offers clear or use good procedures to ensure that consumers are only charged for purchases they agreed to make. Sometimes products or services advertised as “free” may require a subscription. Read advertisements and the terms of sale carefully.

Before you make a purchase, it’s important to know…

  • Exactly what products or services you’re buying
  • Whether it is a one-time purchase or an ongoing subscription
  • The full cost, and how and when you will be billed
  • Whether you can cancel, and the terms of any cancellation policy
  • How to reach the seller in case there is a problem – when signing up, make sure the seller has an 800 number

If you are purchasing music or other downloads, it’s a good idea to make sure you know whether it will work on your mobile device. If it turns out your phone can’t handle the download, some sellers may not offer a refund, so be sure to check to ensure compatibility with your particular phone or PDA before signing up or downloading.

It is also important to know the contract terms of your wireless service provider. Some add charges for downloading content or sending / receiving text messages.

Kids and mobile commerce: set rules

Many parents allow their children to carry a wireless phone to make communicating easier, especially in case of an emergency. Some have found out the hard way, however, that it’s easy for kids to rack up hefty phone bills with text messages or other purchases. Children may make mobile commerce transactions without understanding the charges or asking for parental permission.

Parents should set firm rules for what their kids are allowed to purchase and monitor their accounts closely. Parents may also have the option to block their children from purchasing certain types of content. Ask your wireless provider and companies that sell products and services through mobile commerce what controls are available to you and how they work. Remember, you may be held responsible to pay for purchases billed to your account. For the same reason, don’t lend your mobile device to others to use.

Consumers should choose vendors that…

  • Provide clear and complete information about their offers in their advertisements, including the costs and whether they are one-time purchases or subscriptions
  • Send a text “welcome message” confirming the purchase, the cost, and the terms of sale
  • Provide clear instructions for downloading content
  • Provide multiple protections to ensure only those consumers who agreed to buy products services are billed for them
  • Offer a simple, uncomplicated method to end subscriptions without further obligation
  • Have 800 numbers and live operators available to assist consumers with technical problems and billing questions
  • Provide refunds in the event that children fail to seek parental permission to make purchases
  • Respect your privacy and won’t send you offers you didn’t request

Review your credit card and wireless bills carefully. If you find any questionable charges for mobile commerce transactions, call the number shown for billing inquiries and complaints (or, if you get your bills online, you may see an email or Web site address to use for that purpose). Be sure to notify the company that billed you on behalf of the seller – your wireless service provider or credit card company – if you are contesting the charges, and pay the rest of your bill on time. If you are unable to resolve the problem contact your state or local consumer protection agency or the local Better Business Bureau for help. You can also report a problem to the Federal Trade Commission,, (877) 382-4357.

NCL’s tips for staying on top of trial offers – National Consumers League

Have you ever wanted to try a service or a product on a trial basis? Some companies allow interested customers the chance to try it out before they join or purchase. This is called a trial offer.

How does a trial offer work?

Over a specified period of time, for no charge or a minimal charge, you can see for yourself how the service or product works and whether it is useful to you. It is important to determine whether the product or service fits your lifestyle.Perhaps you have seen trial offers advertised on television or in an Internet advertisement. Or, maybe you have been contacted by telephone or received mail or email at your home. The service or product may sound good, but before you sign up for a trial offer, consider the following questions — your answers will help you make the decision that is right for you.

Weighing a trial offer: Is this the deal for me?

To help you decide whether to sign up with the product or service, make sure you review and understand the rules before you join.

  • Does the cost of the product or service fit your budget? Even though a trial offer allows you the opportunity to try it out, is the product or service something that you really need or want?
  • How likely it is that you will use the product or service? For example, you may be interested in trying a trial membership at a gym. In order to get regular use of the facility, before you join, make sure that the gym is open and available for you to use at the times you plan to use it.
  • Do any limitations or restrictions on the membership make it less useful or attractive? For example, membership in a travel service that has blackout periods during school holidays may not be good for a teacher who would normally travel during school vacations.
  • How do you obtain the benefits? Check to see if you need to present a coupon or enter a special code to make purchases.
  • If you will receive products or services automatically, how frequently they will be provided, and what you have to do if you do not want them and by when?
  • Is there is a minimum purchase requirement? Are you interested in receiving the service or products as often as stated? Are there any other requirements or obligations you must meet that creates a hardship or hassle? What happens if you do not meet those obligations?
  • When, how often, and how much you will be charged? You also need to know whether the charge will be placed on your credit or debit card or deducted from your checking or other account.
  • What is the cancellation policy? How long is the membership? If you do not want to continue, is there an early cancellation penalty for ending your membership? How must you go about canceling your membership?
  • What are the refund and return policies? Know how you can receive a refund if you are not satisfied with the service or product, how you would make that request, whether there is any time limit for doing so, and who is responsible for shipping costs.

Important! Save information about the terms and conditions of your membership someplace where you can easily find it if you need it.

The three “DOs” of trial offers

1. DO Look for Details.
Get all the facts before you agree to a trial offer. Know what will happen when the trial period ends.

2. DO Keep Track.
Note on your calendar the date the trial period ends and decide whether you want to continue before that date. If you cancel, keep a note with the date and the name of the representative you dealt with.

3. DO Check for Charges.
Review your credit card or bank statements as soon as you receive them or check your accounts online. If you are charged or debited when you should not have been, or for the wrong amount, contact your bank immediately. More tips about free trial offers are on the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site at .

The devil is in the details!

Carefully read any information sent to you by the company making the offer. Pay attention to details, such as:
• The date the trial offer begins and ends.
• Limitations on your use of the service or product during the trial period.
• How to obtain the benefits of the trial offer. For example: Do you need to present a coupon or enter a special code for online purchases?
• How frequently you will receive the service or product.
• If you are trying out a product, what the return policy is and who pays for the shipping on returned items.

Consumer tip: Beware of the “negative option”

In some cases you will be charged at the end of the trial period unless you take the necessary steps to cancel the product or service before the end of the trial. In other words, your failure to take action to cancel is interpreted as your acceptance, and you will continue to receive and be periodically charged for the product or service until you take the necessary steps to cancel. This is sometimes referred to as a “negative option.”

A type of negative option plan is a “continuity plan” in which you receive goods and services automatically on a regular schedule. For example, a music club may send you several CDs every month. You do not have to order the product or service each time — it is provided unless you notify the company before the next shipment or service date that you do not want it. You may be able to keep the products or services you received during the trial offer for free, but if you continue with the plan after the trial period ends, you may be obliged to accept and pay for a minimum number of products or services. More information about your rights concerning negative option plans is available on the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site .

NCL’s advice for assessing a company’s reputation and trustworthiness

A reputable company should:
• Make it easy to contact the company by giving you its name, address, and telephone number.
• Tell you all about its product or service, including a description of exactly what is being offered, how much it costs, the membership benefits and restrictions, the payment options, and the cancellation policy.
• Provide complete information on the terms and limitations of the trial offer, including the length of the trial offer, what happens when it ends, and what action you need to take if you do not want to continue after the trial period is over. For example: You could be billed for the product or service unless you notify the company that you want to cancel before the trial period ends.
• Disclose its privacy policy that explains what personal and financial information is collected about you, how the information may be used, and with whom it may be shared.

Consumer Tip: Contact your local consumer protection agency or better business bureau
If you want to check out a company before you agree to a free trial offer, or if you have a complaint about an offer, contact your local Better Business Bureau or state/local consumer protection agency. You will find them in your telephone book or search for them online.

Attention shoppers! What happens when the trial offer ends?

It is up to you to read the trial offer very carefully. Make sure you understand:

  • The date the trial offer ends. Mark your calendar and decide before that date whether you wish to continue receiving the service or product.
  • Your responsibilities under the free trial agreement. Typically, if you do not want to continue, you must contact the company and cancel the product or service before the trial period ends or else you will be automatically billed for future use or membership. In some cases, you may be billed retroactively for products or services you used, so make sure you understand the terms of the offer before you agree to the trial.

It is a good rule of thumb that if you are not interested in continuing with the service or product, contact the company before the end of the trial period, and tell them that you wish to cancel immediately to avoid the possibility of being charged for something you do not want.

Consumer Tip: Watch out for suprise charges when trial offer ends
Sometimes people let a trial offer lapse without canceling the product or service because they did not provide their billing information to the seller. However, if the consumer bought other goods or services from the company in the past, the company may already have their account information at the time the free trial is offered. Consumers may be surprised with a charge once the trial offer ends and then have to take extra steps to resolve the problem.