Gansler Issues Holiday Reminders

BERLIN — With Christmas in the books and the wrapping paper and boxes piled by the curb, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler this week issued a few tips for consumers to avoid post-holiday trauma when returning or exchanging gifts.

Because an otherwise festive holiday season can turn sour when attempting to return merchandise or use older gift cards, Gansler this week is advising 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," he said. “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.”

Gansler advised return policies can vary from store to store, but they must be either posted in the store or printed on a receipt. In addition, online merchants must have their return policy posted on their website. While 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.

The Attorney General said 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.

Gansler is advising consumers to ask a store employee or manager about its return policy if they 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. Gansler said it is also important for consumers to know whether the 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 extended expiration protection to five years.

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, according to Gansler. 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 fees, including service charges, inactivity fees or reload fees must be visibly printed on the card itself, on a sticker permanently affixed to the card or on an envelope containing the gift card.