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As people across Wisconsin scramble to finish (or start) their Christmas shopping, stores and online retailers bombard us with a host of sales, discounts and rewards for shoppers eager for a deal. The National Retail Federation reports that of the 165 million Americans who shopped over Thanksgiving weekend, 54 percent shopped both in-store and online, a 40 percent increase from last year.

As online shopping continues to grow and the fine print of holiday sales gets longer and longer, consumers need to be careful when they’re trying to grab the best deals for loved ones. As you continue your holiday shopping, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Do your homework and start with a plan. Holiday hours of business, return policies and purchase restrictions can all differ from normal store policies. Taking the time to review the details ahead of time is unlikely to make your shopping experience totally stress-free, but it just may save you a headache or two.

Advertisements on TV, in the paper or online are filled with special sales and offers that set high expectations for deeply discounted shopping, but these deals often come with certain limitations. Restrictions are often hidden in the fine print and can include limited quantities, internet or in-store only sales, limited hours for discounts, and different return and exchange policies. It is important to read and understand the fine print as you search for the best deals.

Although shopping online offers all sorts of convenience (like shopping in your PJs and staying warm and within walking distance of the fridge), it can come with risks to your personal and financial information. Online fraud spikes during the holiday shopping season. Using fake websites, ads and social media or text and email blasts, criminals can trick customers into unknowingly downloading malware to their phone or computer, or providing personal or banking information that may lead to identity theft. Beware of unrealistic offers, coupons and other too-good-to-be true sales. If possible, update your device’s operating system and antivirus software and make sure you’re using a secure site, with a web address that starts with “https” rather than “http”, before you enter any personal information. Web sites that start with “https” ensure that all communications between your browser and the website are encrypted.

Protecting your banking information should be a top priority when shopping online. To limit your liability against potential fraud you can pay for gifts with a prepaid debit card or a credit card. Prepaid debit cards limit potential losses to the amount of money loaded on the card. If you use a credit card, federal law allows you to dispute charges if you report them to the credit card company within 60 days of receiving the statement. Be sure to save records of all online transactions and keep an eye on your credit card statements after the holidays for any unauthorized activity. Should you see a charge you didn’t authorize, call the phone number on the back of your credit or debit card or contact the company that issued the card to report the matter as soon as possible.

Christmas is also a wonderful time to give gifts to charity, but be cautious as scammers use the spirit of the season to take advantage of unsuspecting givers. To make sure your gift gets to where you intended, donate to charities that you know and trust. If you’re contacted by someone you don’t know by phone, avoid being pressured to make an immediate donation. Instead, ask the caller to send you written information on the charity and do your homework before giving.

Finally, a great resource for staying safe while shopping this season is Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. More helpful advice as well as tips and tricks for safe holiday shopping is available online at https://www.facebook.com/wiconsumer or https://www.datcp.wi.gov.

Whether your search for the perfect gift takes you across town or just to your sofa, don’t let yourself fall prey to scammers. All it takes is a few precautions to ensure a safe and successful holiday shopping season. Taking the time to understand advertised deals and protecting your personal information could save you time and money, making sure your Christmas doesn’t go from merry to blue. Stay safe and have a happy holiday season!

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Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, represents Wisconsin’s 23rd Senate District. He can be reached at 888-437-9436 or Sen.Moulton@legis.wisconsin.gov.

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