TRENTON, NJ - As  consumers head into the home stretch of the holiday shopping season, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Division of Consumer Affairs are urging shoppers to stay vigilant in order to protect themselves and their money while searching for the best deals.

“During the holiday shopping season, retailers are fighting for every consumer dollar they can get, so it’s natural that they will offer discounts and deals to entice buyers,” said Attorney General Porrino. “But consumers need to be on alert for deceptive practices that could make those deals more expensive than they look.”

“Taking some extra precautions, such as making sure your online shopping is done on a secure network to verifying that you are dealing online with reputable merchants, can save you money and aggravation,” said Steve Lee, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs.

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Whether a consumer is buying online or in a store, these tips and precautions from NJ Division of Consumer Affairs could help prevent the buyer from remorse:

Gift cards: If you are giving or receiving gift cards and gift certificates this holiday season, it is important to know that under state law, they must remain valued for 24 months after purchase. After that period, merchants are allowed to charge a dormancy fee of up to $2 a month, as long as that fee is disclosed on the card or certificate. The merchant also must include a telephone number for consumer inquiries into the expiration date and dormancy fee on the card.

Bring advertisements to the store: When you see an ad for a sale or “special deal,” make sure to bring it with you to the store. If a store advertises an item at a certain price and then refuses to honor that price, it is considered deceptive advertising, which is illegal in New Jersey. Also, be sure to read the fine print on advertisements. Some contain warnings such as “quantities are limited” and “not available in all stores.”

Pricing: Look for the actual price of the item you are seeking to buy either on the merchandise or on the display. New Jersey law requires that merchants must clearly mark the price of items either on the items themselves or the display where the items are located.

Call ahead: In advance of making a store visit, don’t forget to call the store to see if the item you are seeking is still in stock. When you call, ask if the product you want can be held for you until you get to the store. Also, check the scanned price at the register with the sale price listed. Make sure they match.

Refund policies: Can you return an item for a full refund? Some stores have fairly strict rules about returns. Keep all your receipts and store tags on purchased items. For online purchases, save all your email correspondence with the seller. If the item is purchased online, do you have to pay for shipping and handling to return the item? There can be other conditions placed on returns and refunds as well. Know all these things before you buy and before you seek to return an item.

Layaway: Know the store’s policy for items placed on layaway. Some stores have additional charges for layaway, beyond the cost of the item purchased. Some stores may charge penalties for late payments. Others may also have rules about whether you can get reimbursed if you make some payments and then decide not to purchase the merchandise.

Rain checks: While stores do not have to offer rain checks, many do. If they advertise that rain checks are available, make sure you get a written document allowing you to purchase merchandise at the advertised price. Stores must honor the rain check within 60 days or provide an extension with which you agree.

Credit card anti-fraud chips: Anti-fraud chips on credit cards are still being phased in, but wherever it is possible to use them, you should do so. The chips make it harder for criminals to steal your identifying information. Those retailers who do not have chip readers installed for this holiday season would be liable for any fraud that befalls purchasers forced to use swipe readers.

Put away the debit card: When buying, use your credit card rather than your debit card. Credit cards are more secure and provide more protections in cases of fraud or theft.

Secure and encrypted websites: When buying online, make sure the website you are visiting is secure. Look for “https” in the web address or a padlock icon. Try not to use public WiFi to do your shopping. The open networks make it easier for hackers to steal your information. Also, check to see if the company has a real street address, rather than a Post Office box or a private mailbox such as those found at retail mail/shipping locations. Once again, make sure to keep a record of all correspondence and receipts with the online merchant.

Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of consumer abuse, can file an online complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll-free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.