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Ready for some holiday shopping? Check this list twice

The decorations are in the stores, the greeting cards on the shelves, and mailboxes around the country are filling up with catalogs. Yes, folks, the holiday season is practically upon us, and it's time to dust off Action's shopping tips.

To protect your wallet and your sanity, it pays to shop wisely. Know with whom you're dealing. If you're shopping by catalog, phone or online, make sure you have an address and phone number in case you have questions or problems later. Check unfamiliar sellers with the Better Business Bureau and consumer protection folks.

Safeguard your privacy by providing personal information only if you know who's collecting it, why, and how it's going to be used. Look for the company's privacy policy if shopping online, or ask the customer service representative if you're shopping by phone.

When shopping online, make sure the server is secure and buy only from vendors that protect your financial information.

Look for an unbroken key or padlock at the bottom of the browser window to ensure that your transmission is protected. The address will also often change from http:// to https://.

Do not give out your online passwords. Use different passwords for making purchases than those you use for logging on to your computer or network.

Pay by credit card. It offers the most consumer protection.

Know your rights by checking the company's return and refund policies before you buy. Read the fine print. When shopping online, click on the links for warranty or rebate information, additional costs, etc. This information is sometimes found under a general link such as "Terms and Conditions."

Catalogs should also include this information. If not, call and ask the company before placing your order.

Review warranties so you understand what protection you have if something goes wrong later. You have the right to read the warranty before making a purchase.

Get the best deal by comparing prices, and don't forget to take any shipping and handling fees into account. Look for price-matching policies.

Avoid last-minute panic. Allow time for shipment and delivery by ordering early.

Do your research and familiarize yourself with the products you're seeking. Ask family and friends for recommendations of merchants they have dealt with.

Keep good records of your purchases by making printouts of online purchases. Keep a detailed record of phone or catalog orders, including the company's name, address, telephone number, date of order, list of items ordered and stock codes, order confirmation codes and the ad or catalog, if applicable.

Keep receipts. They're usually needed to return items. Ask for gift receipts to include with gifts.

If you have to return merchandise, be sure to follow the company's instructions. Many provide a return form and shipping label. Some provide free pickup. The company generally must pay the cost of returning an item sent to you in error. Contact the company for instructions. If the merchandise is damaged on arrival, save the packing materials. The catalog company will arrange for it to be picked up and a replacement sent.

Remember when returning merchandise that a return receipt from the shipper or post office can be proof the merchandise was returned.

Know your rights. The Federal Trade Commission's mail or telephone merchandise rule states that merchandise must be shipped within 30 days of the order's receipt unless a longer time was clearly specified. If the order cannot be shipped on time, you must be notified of the new shipping date and be given the option of canceling and receiving a full refund. The merchant may assume you agree to a delay of up to 30 days if you don't respond.

If the company cannot meet the new shipping date, it must again notify you and cancel the order unless you specifically direct it not to. The FTC rule gives the merchant seven days to issue a full refund if you paid by cash, check or money order, and one billing period if you paid by credit card.

If you still run into trouble, try to resolve the problem with the merchant. If that fails, you may file a complaint with the FTC online at www.ftc.gov or by calling toll-free 1-877-382-4357.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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