Consumer Reports’ Shop Smart: Don’t let these ad traps catch you

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Want to save 50 per­cent, get a prod­uct free or have a man­u­fac­turer’s war­ranty cover an ex­pen­sive pur­chase for life? Of course you do, and ad­ver­tis­ers know it.

Con­sumer Re­ports says that while fed­eral and state laws gen­er­ally ban the use of mis­lead­ing or de­cep­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, reg­u­la­tors can’t mon­i­tor ev­ery­thing, and se­duc­tive half-truths and out­right de­cep­tions are com­mon.

So it’s up to you to fig­ure out what’s true, what’s false and what’s push­ing the en­ve­lope. Con­sumer Re­ports notes these ad­ver­tis­ing terms you shouldn’t take at face value:

• “Sat­is­fac­tion guar­an­teed.” Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion guide­lines say that com­pa­nies should use “sat­is­fac­tion guar­an­teed” or “money-back guar­an­tee” only if they’re will­ing to give full re­funds to un­happy cus­tom­ers. The guide­lines say that com­pa­nies must dis­close any con­di­tions or lim­ita­tions, such as a time limit.

Some com­pa­nies’ sat­is­fac­tion guar­an­tees are friendly. The web­site of re­tailer Lands’ End says you can re­turn any prod­uct you’re not happy with at any time for a full re­fund or ex­change. But oth­ers are less so. Under Mich­e­lin’s 30-day sat­is­fac­tion guar­an­tee, if you’re not 100 per­cent sat­is­fied with your new tires, you can re­turn them — but for an ex­change, not a re­fund. And if you’re not 100 per­cent sat­is­fied with the re­place­ment tires, for­get it — the pol­icy ap­plies only to the first set.

• “Go­ing out of busi­ness.” New York City con­sumer of­fi­cials re­cently fined a shop that sells rugs, an­tique fur­ni­ture and other items, ac­cus­ing it of run­ning a go­ing-out-of-busi­ness sale with­out a li­cense. The com­pany, op­er­at­ing un­der a slightly dif­fer­ent name, had held a go­ing-out-of-busi­ness sale at the same lo­ca­tion nine months ear­lier. But even at a le­git­i­mate go­ing-out-of-busi­ness sale, don’t as­sume ev­ery­thing’s a deal.

• “Life­time war­ranty.” The term “"life­time” has no le­gal mean­ing. It can re­fer to a prod­uct’s life­time, not yours, and that could mean the pe­riod of time a re­tailer car­ries the item, the man­u­fac­turer still makes it, parts are avail­able or you still own it.

• “We will not be un­der­sold.” Many stores guar­an­tee they have the low­est prices, prom­is­ing to match or beat a com­pet­i­tor’s price be­fore or af­ter you buy. But those prom­ises of­ten come with lots of re­stric­tions in the fine print. Wal-Mart stores won’t match on­line prices, and Sears won’t price-match In­ter­net-only re­tail­ers.

• “Free.” The word “free” is like a pow­er­ful aph­ro­di­siac, so it’s a fa­vor­ite among re­tail­ers. FTC guide­lines say that if you must buy an item to get some­thing free, the price can’t be in­flated to off­set the cost of the free item. And all con­di­tions must be dis­closed.

But think about it: The reg­u­lar price must be pretty steep for com­pa­nies to give away stuff and still make a profit. Another catch is be­ing asked to pay some­thing to get a free item, such as ad­di­tional ship­ping and han­dling that may equal or ex­ceed the item’s cost. Then there are “free tri­als” that aren’t free at all when the com­pany winds up charg­ing your credit card for a monthly ser­vice with­out tell­ing you it will if you don’t can­cel in time.


By the ed­i­tors of Con­sumer Re­ports (www.con­sumer­re­p­orts.org).

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