Attorney General Gansler Offers Post-Holiday Tips for Consumers
Don't get duped by return policies, gift card rules, warranty rights
MD ( Dec. 22, 2011) - Because a festive holiday season can turn sour when attempting to return merchandise or use older gift cards, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler advises Marylanders to know the policies and conditions that are in place to protect consumers.
"No one wants to spend the holidays haggling with retailers over a gift refund, a defective product or a confusing warranty plan," said Attorney General Gansler. "Being an informed consumer will lessen the chances of a frustrating shopping experience and, more importantly, allow you to spend more time with loved ones."
Return policies can vary from store to store, but they must be either posted in the store or printed on a receipt (online merchants must have their return policy posted on their web site). Some businesses allow gift exchanges, returns or refunds at any time; others impose a deadline by which a return must be made, whether a receipt must be shown, and if only store credit is issued. Some stores won't accept returns if the product has been opened or limit how many returns a single consumer can make. Still other merchants do not accept any returns, even with a receipt.
If the retailer doesn't have a posted policy and it is not printed on the receipt, the consumer may assume there are no refund limitations and must receive a merchandise exchange or a refund, as long as the item is in good condition. Also, if a purchased item is defective, the store is required to repair it, exchange it or give a refund, regardless of its return policy.
Attorney General Gansler advises consumers to ask a store employee or manager about its return policy if you don't see it posted or on a receipt. When shopping online, consumers should look to see whether there is a shipping fee or a re-stocking fee for returned items.
Gift cards have become an increasingly popular holiday present, in lieu of actual merchandise that the recipient may not want or need. But some consumers have been unwittingly charged fees that reduce the card's original value or have seen their cards expire before they are used. It is also important to know whether remaining value after a purchase can be received in cash and whether gift cards can be used online, as well as in-store.
Since 2006, state law provides that store-specific gift cards that can only be used to buy goods from a particular store and its affiliates may not expire for at least four years from the date of purchase, during which time the issuer may not impose fees or charges. Federal legislation adopted in 2009 extends expiration protection to five years, although consumers may be subject to fees during the fifth year.
Gift cards issued by banks and processed through a national credit or debit card service, such as American Express, MasterCard or Visa, offer more flexibility - most stores accept them - but may have different protections. If the card is not reloadable, federal legislation prevents expiration in less than five years, but fees may still apply once a month if there has been at least one year of inactivity.
Any terms or conditions regarding an expiration date or fee (service charge, inactivity fees or reload fees are among the most common) must be visibly printed on the card itself, on a sticker permanently affixed to the card or on an envelope containing the gift card. Fees cannot be charged more than once a month and require that there is at least one year of inactivity on the card prior to being initially assessed. These terms may not be changed after the date of purchase unless it benefits the consumer.
Finally, defective merchandise is covered by an implied warranty - a guarantee that the item works when it is purchased -- even if a store has a "No Refunds, No Exchanges" policy. Implied warranties require that new and used goods are fit for sale and continue to function for a reasonable period of time. If you buy a defective product, you have the right to have it repaired or replaced, or to get a refund.
A product may not be sold "as is" under Maryland's implied warranty law, except used cars that have more than 60,000 miles and are more than six years old. Dealers selling a car "as is" must include a written disclosure stating that the implied warranty does not cover automobiles.
The Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division enforces refund and exchange rules and works to mediate disputes between consumers and businesses. To file a complaint or get more information, call the Mediation Unit hotline at 410-528-8662 or 888-743-0023. Consumers can also write to us at 200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202 or file a complaint online at http://www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/complaint.htm.