Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) Commissioner Lorelei Salas today issued the Holiday Shopping Tips to protect consumers’ identity and money during the holiday season. This annual effort kicks off the holiday shopping season and makes consumers aware of their rights–including gift card protections, tips for budgeting, and ways they can protect themselves from scams.
“Americans are expected to spend an average of $1,000 during the holidays,” said DCWP Commissioner Lorelei Salas. “With such large spending, it is crucial that consumers know how to protect their hard-earned money—especially from scammers who take advantage of unsuspecting shoppers during the busy holiday season. We encourage everyone to follow our tips to protect themselves and ensure the holiday season is a time of joy and not frustration or stress.”
Shopping Tips for the Holiday Season
Know your consumer rights.
- Stores can set their own refund policy but they must post a sign with all conditions or limitations at each register, point of sale, or at each entrance where customers can easily read it. If no refund policy is posted, you can return any unused item within 30 days, and the business must give you the choice of cash or credit. Visit to get all of DCWP’s tips, including industries that have certain requirements like , , , and .
- In New York City, businesses must give you a receipt for purchases over $20 automatically and upon request for purchases between $5 and $20.
- Stores must post prices either on the item or on a sign where the item is displayed. It is illegal to charge more than that posted price.
- Download from or call 311 to request a copy.
Create a budget and make a list. Don’t let holiday spending put you in debt. Decide what you want to buy and how much you want to spend in advance, start shopping early and watch your bank balance. If you’re struggling with debt and need help budgeting, make an appointment for free, financial counseling at the City’s Financial Empowerment Centers online at or by calling 311.
Be a smart shopper.
- Use websites, smartphone apps (see below for our tip about fake apps before you download) and social media to research products, compare prices, and find sales and discounts before you start shopping. Avoid entering your personal information to get a coupon—some scammers use the promise of discounts to steal your information.
- Save your receipts to make returns easier and check with the store for extended return policies and/or free return shipping, and any restocking fees.
- Keep your eye on your credit card when making a purchase. Some employees have used handheld machines illegally to swipe card information and use it later to hack into accounts.
- Think twice before you buy the “female version” of a product. is prevalent and means you could pay more for an item marketed towards females than items marketed towards males.
- Understand installment loans. Installment loans can allow you to purchase gifts during the holidays and spread out payments, but make sure you understand all the terms, such as the number of months you will have to make loan repayments, as well as the interest rate, fees, and credit insurance charges – an insurance you can take in the event that you are unable to pay your loan – and how these increase the total cost before opting for one of these loans. That way, you can decide before committing to an installment loan whether you could comfortably make your monthly payments without any financial stress.
- Many people take advantage of holiday deals to make non-gift purchases. Whether you’re shopping for a new TV, a used car, or to remodel your kitchen, get DCWP’s tips first at .
Gift cards are one of the most popular gifts … know the rules. The value of a gift card is valid for at least five years from when the card was purchased or money was last loaded onto it. In New York, all fees must be listed and no inactivity or service fees can be charged if the card has been used within the past 25 months. If you’re buying an “experience” card (like a spa treatment, flight or hotel stay), buy one with a specific dollar value so you can benefit from these consumer protections. Visit for the latest information on gift card rules and visit to see if you have unclaimed funds because unused gift card values issued by New York corporations are required to be turned over to the Comptroller’s office as abandoned property after five years of dormancy.
Be on alert for holiday scams. It’s a busy time of year and unfortunately, scammers try to take advantage of people and their generosity. Shop at stores you know, research charities before you donate, protect your personal information and be wary of suspicious calls and emails, especially if they offer free things or deals that are too good to be true.
Some common scams are:
- Fake apps: A lot of fake retail and product apps pop up around the holiday season, some even mimic real shopping apps. Fake apps can do anything from giving you annoying pop-up ads to installing malware or stealing your personal and credit card information. Before you download an app, read the reviews and check the publisher to make sure they are legitimate. If you are shopping at a specific store, go to that store’s website to find its official app.
- Gift Card Scams: Be careful of websites or social media sites that offer free or discounted gift cards. These sites often ask for your personal information or ask you to pay for a gift card that has no balance. Also, be suspicious of anyone who asks you to pay a bill with a gift card – government agencies (e.g., IRS, FBI, NYPD, etc.) and public utility companies (e.g., Con Edison) will never ask for payment using gift cards.
- Delivery Scams: Watch out for texts or emails that say you will be receiving a package but then ask you to enter personal information. If you have questions about a delivery, don’t click the email but contact the carrier or retailer directly. Some thieves will even come to your door with a package for you sign for but then ask you to swipe your credit card for a “delivery charge.” Package theft is also common during the holiday season so be sure to have your packages delivered to a place where they will be safe. Look for options to pick up your shipment at a local store or mailing center.
- Temporary Holiday Jobs Scams: If you’re looking for a temporary job during the holiday season for some extra money, be careful of jobs that are advertised online and that ask for personal information or payment in order to apply. Under the , retail employers must give workers predictable schedules. Learn more about workers’ rights at .
- Social Media “Secret Sister” Gift Exchange: Be wary of social media posts inviting you to join a “Secret Gift Exchange,” promising that you will receive as many as 36 gifts in exchange for sending a gift valued $10 or more to a stranger. This is an illegal pyramid scheme, and it can be a way for scammers to obtain your personal contact information.
- Fake Holiday E-Cards: Unfortunately, not all e-cards are sending holiday wishes but instead they may install malware to steal your personal information. Be wary of an e-card notification that is not from a recognized name but instead a “friend” or “secret admirer” and avoid links or attachments that end with “.exe,” which could download a virus.
- Charity Scams: The holidays are an important time to give to those in need, but many people will take advantage of this. If you are planning to make a donation, make sure to research the organization carefully. All legitimate charities must be registered with the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau. Contact the Charities Bureau by visiting or calling 212-416-8401 to investigate the charity.
Protect yourself when shopping online. Only shop on secure websites—use familiar websites or research and read reviews of new ones, and check that the website starts with https (not just http – the “s” stands for secure) or has a padlock icon. Avoid typing your personal information when using unsecured Wi-Fi. Also, don’t click on shopping links included in unsolicited emails or social media sites—type the address directly into your browser. Visit for more information on how to be safe, secure, and responsible online.
Shop local and don’t buy counterfeit or “pirated” goods. Support New York City’s local economy by shopping at local retail stores and avoid buying counterfeit and pirated goods, which are illegal and jeopardize local jobs. Also be suspicious if a deal seems too good to be true—it might be a knockoff.
Get a delivery date. Secure a delivery date in writing before you leave a store. If retailers don’t specify a “ship by” date for your online purchase, they must ship within 30 days.
Check for recalls. To check if a gift or toy has been recalled, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission at cpsc.gov and click on the recall section.
File a complaint if you’ve had a problem the business won’t resolve. File a complaint with DCWP at nyc.gov/dcwp or by contacting 311. DCWP mediators will help. You can file your complaint in multiple languages.
The NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) protects and enhances the daily economic lives of New Yorkers to create thriving communities. DCWP licenses more than 75,000 businesses in more than 50 industries and enforces key consumer protection, licensing, and workplace laws that apply to countless more. By supporting businesses through equitable enforcement and access to resources and, by helping to resolve complaints, DCWP protects the marketplace from predatory practices and strives to create a culture of compliance. Through its community outreach and the work of its offices of Financial Empowerment and Labor Policy & Standards, DCWP empowers consumers and working families by providing the tools and resources they need to be educated consumers and to achieve financial health and work-life balance. DCWP also conducts research and advocates for public policy that furthers its work to support New York City’s communities. For more information about DCWP and its work, call 311 or visit DCWP at or on its social media sites, , , and .