FTC Holiday Shopping Tips

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"The holiday season is a hectic time for many consumers. As shoppers make their lists and select their gifts, the Federal Trade Commission has prepared a few tips to remind consumers of their rights when ordering and paying for their purchases—whether the gifts are bought at the shops on Main Street, ordered via a toll-free 800 number, or purchased online in a virtual store."

Jodie Bernstein, Director
FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection


Many consumers enjoy the convenience of shopping by mail and telephone—overall U.S. mail order sales in 1996 exceeded $229.5 billion.*

The FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule requires merchants to ship mail-order merchandise within 30 days of receiving a completed order unless a longer time is clearly specified in advertisements or catalog listings.

For orders that cannot be shipped on time, the merchant must:

  • Notify the consumer of the new shipping date and give the consumer the option of cancelling for a full refund. If the consumer does not respond to this notice, the merchant can presume the consumer has agreed to a delay of up to 30 days).

If the company cannot meet the revised shipping date, it must:

  • Send the consumer a second notice and, unless the consumer expressly consents to a second delay, cancel the order, and issue a prompt refund.

If a consumer cancels the order, the rule requires a merchant to:

  • Make a full refund within seven days for cash, check or money-order sales, and within one billing cycle for charged sales.

Consumers should remember that the above requirements apply to telephone orders, including sales where a computer, fax machine or similar means is used to transmit an order over a telephone line. Many mail-order companies provide telephone numbers, including toll-free "800/888" or fax numbers, to make purchasing easier.

The FTC offers consumers the following advice on making mail/telephone-order purchases:

  • Order early to allow plenty of time for shipment and delivery. The holiday season is traditionally the busiest time of year for both mail-order companies and the Postal Service.
  • Keep a copy of the company’s name, address, phone number, the date of your order, the ad or catalog from which you ordered, the order form you sent to the company, and a cancelled check or charge account record.

Of course, calling a company can help determine a product’s availability, the order’s total cost, and the company’s refund policy.


One of the most popular holiday purchases is jewelry. If you’re planning a gift of jewelry, the FTC offers some pointers for shoppers in the market for gold, diamonds, gemstones, or watches. And remember—before you buy—ask about the stores’ refund and return policy.

  • There’s a big difference between 14 karat gold and gold-plated jewelry. Fourteen karat (14K) jewelry contains 14 parts of gold, mixed in throughout with 10 parts of base metal. Gold-plated describes jewelry with a layer of at least 10K gold bonded to a base metal. Gold plating eventually wears away, depending on how often the item is worn and how thick the plating is.
  • When you’re buying a diamond, consider four criteria: cut, color, clarity and weight, usually stated as carats. Each factor affects the price. Color is sometimes "graded" on a scale. However, scales are not uniform: a "D" may be the best color for one scale, but not for another. Make sure you know how a particular scale and grade represent the color of the diamond you’re considering. A diamond can be described as "flawless" only if it has no visible surface cracks or other imperfections when viewed under 10-power magnification by a skilled diamond grader.
  • Know the difference between laboratory-created gemstones and naturally mined stones. Stones created in the lab are visually identical to stones mined from the earth. The big difference is in the cost: laboratory-created stones are less expensive than naturally mined stones. But because they look just like stones mined from the earth, they must be identified as lab-created. If you want a naturally mined stone, ask if it has been treated. Gemstone treatments—such as heating, dyeing or bleaching—can improve a stone’s appearance or durability. Some treatments are permanent; some may create special care requirements. Treatments also may affect the stone’s value.
  • If you’re buying a watch, determine whether you want one that runs on a battery or one that must be wound daily. Ask if a warranty or guarantee is included, how long it lasts, and what parts and repair problems it covers. Also ask how and where you can get the watch serviced and repaired.


Consumers use credit cards more than usual during the holiday season. Fraud can result when cards are lost or stolen, or when people "misappropriate" credit-card numbers.

The FTC recommends that consumers take the following precautions to guard against credit-card fraud:

  • Never give a credit-card number over the telephone, unless you have initiated the transaction and know the company you are dealing with is reputable.
  • Keep an eye on credit cards during transactions and get them back promptly.
  • Avoid signing blank receipts. When signing, draw a line through the blank space above the total, and keep copies of the receipts to compare with charges on your monthly billing statements.
  • Review credit-card accounts promptly every month and immediately report any questionable charges by writing to the company that issued the card.
  • Never lend credit cards, or leave them or receipts lying around. Never write credit-card numbers on a postcard.

Lost or Stolen Cards
If a credit card is lost, call the card company immediately. Most companies have toll-free numbers to report missing or stolen cards. Consumers may be liable, up to $50, for unauthorized purchases made on each card before reporting a loss or theft. Under federal law, consumers are not liable for any unauthorized charges after they call each company.


Online shopping gives new meaning to convenience and choice. With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse, you can shop at home—right from your computer. But before you "surf the net" to your favorite online mall, here are some basic tips about shopping in cyberspace.

  • Unsecured information sent over the Internet can be intercepted. Use a secure web browser, such as one that complies with industry standards—Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (SHTP)—which will "encrypt" or scramble purchase information.
  • Shop with companies you know and always determine the company's return and refund policy before you place an order.
  • Never give out your Internet password. Be original when creating a password, perhaps using a combination of letters, numbers or symbols—CUL8R or $2BURN. Also, be cautious if you're asked to provide personal information, such as your Social Security Number. It is rarely necessary and should raise a red flag.


If consumers experience mail-order or credit-card problems, the FTC recommends that they first contact the retailer or the card issuer and attempt to resolve the problem. If that does not work, they should contact the local Better Business Bureau or local and state consumer protection offices.

For mail order, contact either the U.S. Postal Service or the Direct Marketing Association, an industry-sponsored organization. The Association can be reached at 11 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036-8096; 212-768-7277.

The FTC also is interested in hearing from consumers. Although the agency does not intervene in individual disputes, information from consumers relating their experiences is vital to the agency’s law enforcement efforts. Consumers may address their complaints to the Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.


For a complete list of consumer and business publications from the FTC, request a free copy of Best Sellers by contacting:

Consumer Response Center, Room 130
Federal Trade Commission
6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580;
202-326-2222; TTY 1-866-653-4261.

*Sales figure courtesy of Direct Marketing Magazine.

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