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Know your consumer rights

It can save you headaches, and money too

Last reviewed: December 2009

Whether you're buying holiday presents or shopping for yourself, you can avoid big shopping mistakes if you know your rights. But people often make assumptions about what the law allows and what it doesn't, or they simply accept what a retailer tells them. Here are your rights-and some things consumers often get wrong when it comes to consumer law.

The stuff you order should arrive on time.

You ordered an MP3 player online in mid-November for your nephew, but it arrived two days after your family's holiday gathering. Are you stuck? Nope. You don't have to wait indefinitely for something you ordered online to arrive; there's a law that says so. The federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Trade Regulation Rule states that stores must ship telephone, mail, fax, and Internet orders within 30 days—or earlier if that's what the merchant promised. If the retailer has a good reason for not getting your order out on time, it must get your consent for a late arrival. If you don't respond or agree, the order must be cancelled. One exception: If you're applying for credit along with your order, merchants have 50 days instead of 30.

A store has to honor the posted price.

Sorry, but you're not entitled to that $999 big-screen TV for $9.99 even though that's what the price tag says. If a price is that ridiculously low, the buyer should have known it was a mistake, says Jane Winn, a professor at the University of Washington Law School. (But if something is mismarked, it can't hurt to complain to the manager to see whether you can finagle a better price.)

If you paid with a credit card, you can dispute certain charges and get a refund.

You went to pick up a custom toy chest for your child or a family photo for Grandma only to find that the store has disappeared, along with your deposit. If you paid by credit card, you should be covered. You have federal credit card chargeback rights, and they fall into two categories. One is billing errors, which covers unauthorized charges and charges for items that were never delivered or were delivered late, as well as items that were misrepresented. You can request a chargeback (a refund) within 60 days of your statement date; some cards give you more time. The other category is called claims and defenses, and you have up to one year to request a chargeback if you have to cancel a sale directly with the seller for any legal reason, including shoddy merchandise. But you must meet four requirements: The disputed amount must be over $50; you must have made a good-faith effort to obtain a refund or credit; the balance on your card must be at least as much as the amount you're disputing (if your balance is zero, you can't use this provision); and the merchant must be in your home state and within 100 miles of your home. Yes, that's a lot of hurdles, but this right can come in handy.

The warranty is expired, so you're out of luck.

Your refrigerator dies just three months after the warranty expires. Both the store and the manufacturer say you have to pay to get it fixed. Not so. Unless the store or manufacturer has a policy that says otherwise, products generally come with a state-mandated, unwritten "implied warranty of merchantability" that the item will perform as commonly expected and be free of substantial defects, and that it must last a reasonable amount of time. (Most states cap the implied warranty at four years.) Although manufacturer warranties and retail Web sites generally disclaim the implied warranty, walk-in retailers rarely do. Some retailers do so by marking sales "as is," "with all faults," or similar language. A handful of states prohibit such disclaimers, even for as-is sales. Check with your state department of consumer affairs.

You can cancel a sale if you went with a salesperson's suggestion but aren't satisfied with the product.

You specifically asked for a washing machine that could handle 15-pound loads, but you discovered that the model the salesperson recommended isn't really that heavy duty after all. In this case, the store is technically on the hook for breaching an unwritten "warranty of fitness for a particular purpose." But it might be difficult to prove your argument, so it's always best to check product specs and get any assurances in writing before you plunk down your money.

"Lifetime warranty" means your lifetime.

A "lifetime warranty" doesn't have a legal definition, although some states may have their own rules. A lifetime warranty for a car muffler, for instance, might mean the life of the vehicle or as long as the original owner has the car—or whatever the retailer says it means. And lifetime warranties don't always include the entire item and the cost to replace it. So getting a "free" replacement for that "lifetime" muffler might still cost you a fortune for clamps, exhaust pipes, and labor.

You can use any parts or service providers you want without jeopardizing the manufacturer's warranty.

The maker of your vacuum cleaner says your warranty is void because you didn't use its bags. But whether it's vacuum bags, print cartridges, or repairs for your car, federal law prevents you from being tied to any particular parts or service providers as a condition of maintaining your warranty. Occasional exceptions crop up when the company can show that the product will not work properly without the specified part or service. One caveat: The manufacturer doesn't have to cover damage caused by a third-party part or service.

Federal law prohibits returning pierced earrings, underwear, and swimsuits.

The retailer may want you to believe that, and some states have specific laws prohibiting certain returns, but this isn't a universal retail truth. Of course, the store can adopt its own policy not to accept returns of these items—or anything else, for that matter.

You're entitled to a rain check if your supermarket runs out of an advertised product.

The federal Retail Food Store Rule requires grocers to provide rain checks on advertised items or to substitute an equivalent product. They can get around this by demonstrating they ordered sufficient quantities to meet reasonably anticipated demand or by including a statement in their ad that quantities are limited or that the discounted product is available only in certain stores. The federal law applies only to food stores, but states may have broader rules.

Stores must allow returns.

You forgot to tell your husband that you're giving up golf and taking up the saxophone. Now the store won't take back the clubs he just bought you for Christmas. It's true that retailers generally can adopt any return policy they want as long as it's prominently posted at the point of sale. But if the policy isn't posted, some states impose one. If the product doesn't work or isn't what you ordered, the policy doesn't matter—you have a right to get what you paid for. (More about returns.) Federal law generally gives you three days to cancel some purchases. Some states have similar "cooling off" periods for some sales, such as those involving health-club and home-improvement contracts (but not for new and used car purchase agreements!).

This article appeared in Consumer Reports Shopsmart Magazine.

Posted: November 2009—Consumer Reports Shopsmart Magazine issue: December 2009