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Protect your credit during holiday shopping

Posted Nov. 27, 2011, at 3:34 p.m.

The last thing you might be thinking about during the holiday season is protecting your credit. However, it may be just the time of year to double efforts to safeguard your good credit.

That message came last week from Anne Head, Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. “The holiday shopping season is a prime time for credit and debit card problems — from unauthorized charges to overcharges and identity theft,” she said in a news release.

The commissioner also took specific aim at gift and bank cards. Experts advise consumers to take a close look at the fine print. While gift cards have appeal to many for their convenience, some of them have fees or other provisions that can reduce their value over time. The cards may have limits on where they can be used, and card holders’ options may be limited if cards are lost or stolen.

Lloyd LaFountain III, Superintendent of the Department’s Bureau of Financial Institutions, urges buyers to know all the important terms, including:

  1. Any fees that apply during or after the sale that reduce the value of the card
  2. Expiration date
  3. What to do if the card is lost or stolen
  4. What to do if there are problems with the card
  5. Where the card can be used
  6. How to claim any unused portion of the card

If you don’t find the above information on the gift card or packaging, try to find a toll-free number or website to learn those details.

Maine and federal law differs on consumers’ rights with gift cards. Under federal statutes, expiration dates are limited to five years. For “entities subject to Maine law,” expiration dates cannot be imposed on a consumer’s right to redeem prepaid bank cards or stored value gift cards. Maine law also says, if a customer redeems a stored-value card in person and there’s less than $5 remaining after a purchase, the customer can request the balance in cash.

On the matter of your good credit, the department cautions that the holiday shopping season is a prime time for unauthorized charges, overcharges and identity theft. There are protections in federal law (which governs interstate commerce including banking), but consumers need to protect themselves and act fast when problems occur.

Generally, banks must refund their customers for overcharges, fraudulent charges or unauthorized debit withdrawals; but it’s critical to notify the financial institution and dispute the charge as soon as you become aware of the issue. Many consumers contact the store or business where the unauthorized charge happened, but that’s not enough to satisfy the requirements of the law.

“Contact your credit card issuer directly, and then write to the dispute address listed on each statement, which is generally different from the billing address,” said Superintendent Will Lund from the Department’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Write; don’t rely on a phone call or email. Usually the institution will provisionally credit your account and ask the merchant to show that the charge was valid.

Consumers who feel they have been the victims of unauthorized charges or identity theft can get help from Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Call 800-332-8529 or file a complaint electronically at the bureau’s website, www.Credit.Maine.gov.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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