Important shopping rights you may not know about

consumer-rights-318742Consumer Federation of California offers these tips when shopping this holiday season:

•    California gift card cash back law: Any gift card or certificate with a value of $10 or less may be redeemed for cash, and cannot expire or charge a service fee.

Need extra money this holiday season? An estimated $110 billion in gift cards were purchased during the 2012 holiday season, and chances are good that you have unused cards or will receive some new ones this year.

One of the benefits of living in our state is that merchants are required to provide cash back to the purchaser or holder of any gift card or gift certificate with a balance less than $10, and most gift cards sold here cannot expire or charge a service fee. If your card is lost or stolen, most retailers are sympathetic – but only if you can prove with a receipt that you purchased the card.

The California law doesn’t apply to prepaid calling cards; free awards, loyalty or promotional cards; cards sold at a volume discount for fundraising; or cards issued for food products or grocery items.

•    A merchant may not require your email, phone number, zip code, or other personal information to complete an in-person credit card transaction.

When you make a purchase with a credit card at a store in California, employees are not permitted to ask you for your personal information such as your home address, zip code, phone number or email address.

You might not have thought twice when merchants ask for your ZIP code when you’re purchasing items, but providing it can reveal more about you than you might realize. When paired with your name on a credit card, your ZIP code can help identify your address and the merchant or third parties could collect your information and target you with marketing materials.

Merchants in stores cannot legally require you to provide: (1) any personal information, including address and telephone number, on any form associated with the credit card transaction when consumers use a credit card to pay for goods or services; (2) personal information that the merchant then records; or (3) forms with pre-printed spaces for personal information. One exception allows the collection of ZIP codes for gasoline pay-at-the-pump transactions for fraud and identity theft prevention.

Unfortunately, earlier this year, the California Supreme Court said these consumer privacy protections don’t apply to certain online transactions.

The Song Beverly Credit Card Act, which prohibits brick-and-mortar retailers from collecting and recording a customer’s personal identifying information as a condition of accepting payment by credit cards, does not apply to downloadable products like iTunes songs and videos.

Under this new ruling, online merchants may demand personal information, without limit, from credit card holders, and use the information gathered for marketing, creation of customer dossiers, for sale to third parties, or other purposes.

Consumer Federation of California is sponsoring legislation to strike a balance between consumer privacy and crime prevention, which would permit online businesses to collect only a customer’s zip code and other limited information necessary to combat fraud or identity theft, and require the information be destroyed when the crime prevention purpose is concluded.

•    No merchant can charge more than the advertised, quoted, or displayed price for a product.

Most of us assume that an electronic store scanner will charge us the current price, even for sale items. While that may be the case most of the time, we need to remember that scanners are only as accurate as the prices programmed into them. If store employees forget to program a sale price, customers will be overcharged. For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to the prices you’re charged at the checkout.

Watch for overcharges and save money by following these tips: (1) pay attention to the cash register to be sure you are charged the correct price, (2) point out overcharges to the cashier, and (3) check your receipt for overcharges or other errors before leaving the store.

If you are charged more than the advertised, posted or quoted price, report it to the sales clerk or manager right away. By law, you are entitled to the lowest advertised, posted or quoted price offered by the store. Stores must honor a posted price, even if the price has expired.

Consumer Federation of California may be able to help you or refer you to others who may provide assistance if you have a complaint about a California business. Please visit