Recalls, returns can be avoided
Experts say shoppers should find out about products before buying
Sheryl Harris, The New York Times

Most years, it may be better to give than receive, but this year, it's a wash.

It's hard to pick just the right toy when you realize that 25 million have been recalled because they can maim, poison or reduce the SAT-scoring potential of our kids.

What with tainted toys, gift certificate snags, tough return policies and restocking fees, the joy of giving could lose just a bit of its seasonal sparkle.

Luckily, consumer groups have stepped in with some well-timed advice on what to avoid as you shop while the dollar drops.


Avoid metal jewelry, especially cheap metal jewelry, for young children, most groups say. If metal jewelry is inexpensive, looks like silver and seems heavy for its size, it may contain lead, warns the New York attorney general's office.

Don't buy toys unless they're age appropriate. Age labels on the box don't relate to a child's intellect but are based on his or her developmental stage. A toy suitable for one age group can be frustrating or dangerous for a younger child.

Avoid toys with magnets that can come loose. Many kids hold toys in their mouths, and if they swallow magnets it can result in life-threatening intestinal blockages and tears. If you do give kids magnetic toys, make sure the magnets can't be tugged loose.

Avoid toys from vending machines as well as toys that don't carry brand names, says Consumer Reports. (It's true that well-known brands have been recalled this year, but at least they're easy to identify, and name manufacturers often have a mechanism for exchanging toys.)

Although lead has grabbed most of the headlines, choking is the leading cause of death for children under 4. Any toy small enough to slide through a toilet-paper tube is a choking hazard for a young child. Avoid small toys for children under 3 -- as well as for any older child who still mouths toys.

If you bought presents early, make sure you check toys, art supplies and children's metal jewelry against the growing list of children's items recalled this year. For links to recalls, visit


Remove credit cards, Social Security cards and other unneeded documents from your wallet before you head to the mall, says Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Pickpockets are busy this time of year. Never leave your purse or a jacket containing your wallet or cell phone in a shopping basket. Men should carry wallets in a front pants pocket, which makes them harder to steal.

Read an online retailer's privacy policy before you buy. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recommends you patronize online retailers who have agreed to voluntary privacy guidelines through organizations like TRUSTe (, Verisign ( or BBBonline ( Clicking on the icon should lead you to the icon-issuer's Web site so you can verify.

Never shop online unless you make sure the Web site encrypts account and personal information it collects. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says to look for "https://" in the URL address or the closed padlock icon to make sure the page is secure. (An open lock indicates it's probably not secure.) Some browsers have color-coded indicators when you click on an encrypted page.

Make sure merchants print no more than five digits of your credit card number on your receipt. By law, electronically printed receipts can't carry your entire number on the customer copy.

Report violators to the Federal Trade Commission at


Avoid using a debit or check card to pay for purchases. Most debit cards don't carry the consumer protections that credit cards do, and exorbitant overdraft fees can pile up before a consumer realizes what's happening, says the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Not only that, the group warns, some crooks use "skimming" devices to steal card information from merchant card-swipers. A debit card can give them direct access to your bank account.

Using a credit card for purchases provides the best consumer protection because it allows you to dispute a purchase if merchandise isn't as advertised or if there's a billing error. It's the safest way to shop online and the best way to purchase big-ticket items.

Avoid overspending. If you're worried you'll go over your budget if you use plastic, draw up a gift list with price caps and stick to it. You also may want to stash away the cash to pay off your card after each shopping trip. (Technically, paying off a charge lessens your ability to dispute, so you may want to bank the saved money until the presents are opened and you're sure they're as advertised.)

Ignore rebate offers when you're considering whether to buy.

Rebates can be notoriously hard to collect. Ask yourself if you'd buy the item at that price if you couldn't get the advertised rebate. If the answer is no, keep shopping.

Don't forget to ask for gift receipts. It can be difficult to return an item for the purchase price without the gift receipt, advises Consumer World, a Web site for consumers.

Ask before you buy

Check the store's return policy before you buy anything. In some states, retailers can set any return policy they'd like -- including not allowing them -- as long as they post the policy in a conspicuous place.

Check the performance and reliability of appliances and electronics through Consumer Reports or unbiased product reviews before you buy.

Check the reliability of retailers you're not familiar with through the Better Business Bureau (

Ask if there are restocking fees on returned products. They may be hard to dodge on electronics, but some retailers slap them on furniture and other goods. Ask whether people who return items are tracked. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says that, in an effort to combat organized retail fraud, some retailers collect information about consumers who return items and share the data with a central clearinghouse.

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