Shop and be merry, but also be wary

Now that Thanksgiving is more than two weeks past, it's time to be on the lookout for deals that turn into turkeys and gobble up your money.

We're looking at busy days for watching your wallet. Pay attention to these warnings.

SALE SIGNS CAN BE SNEAKY: More than once, I've spotted great deals on the rack only to discover that the bargain price applied to something else on that rack — not what I grabbed.

Yes, sale signs can, or should, have fine print. The other day, I thought I was getting anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent off a Detroit Tigers shirt, but my shirt rang up at 10 percent off. I later re-examined that sign at that store and saw the bigger discounts only applied to Tigers Central Division Championship merchandise, not the Justin Verlander jerseys on the same rack.

Sometimes, too, a clerk can make an honest error. My husband could have paid $27 for sweet potatoes. Thankfully, he spotted that one. Somehow the clerk put in the code for ginger root at $5.56 a pound. But four extra large sweet potatoes in our cart weighed in at about $5 total — not $27.

Lesson learned: Know what you expect to pay before you hit the register. Scan the item ahead of time. Do the math if a discount is to be taken at the register. Take the purchase back if you later spot that you paid more for it than expected.

A PURSE DOES NOT BELONG IN THE SHOPPING CART: Troy, Mich., Police Sgt. Andy Breidenich said shoppers can get distracted, and there's an increased chance during the holiday season that a thief can walk off with a wallet or iPhone that's left even for minutes on the counter. The same is true for purses left in shopping carts.

Women, he said, should put their cash, credit cards and ID in a smaller clutch that they keep in a pocket or under a jacket. Take cash and valuables out of a purse, Breidenich recommends.

"Put a bunch of coal in the purse — if somebody does steal it, that's what they get for Christmas," he said.

Lesson learned: Thieves are ripping off shoppers as well store merchandise. Watch out for grab-and-dash thefts of purses in parking lots. Crooks can swiftly take a purse from a shopping cart the moment that a woman turns away to load the trunk or unlock the car.

THE WHACKED-OUT WEBSITE: Not all shopping sites are legitimate. Some are created by con artists trying to capture your credit card information or identity. Take extra care if someone emails or texts an odd site that has super bargains on gifts.

"Shoppers should avoid making any purchases from stores they've never heard of," said Brent Shelton, a spokesman for

Lesson learned: Do some research beforehand, for example, by checking out a site at the Better Business Bureau,

THE MONEY-GRAB GIFT CARD: What could be simpler than to buy a gift card? Well, there can be some glitches with gift cards, too.

What if you buy the card and lose it? The gift card money is gone at some retailers, such Marshalls or Outback Steakhouse.

Some retailers, including Target, will replace the lost, stolen or damaged card with an original purchase receipt. But you would need to save receipts for gift cards.

PSST, WANNA DEAL ON A GIFT CARD? Watch out: You could be dealing with a disreputable third party, according to the Better Business Bureau. If there can be faux fur and faux cashmere, why not faux gift cards?

Some restaurants and retailers offer loyalty or promotional gift cards that can only be used during a short window, according to Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of the personal finance websites CardHub and WalletHub.

Papadimitriou said regular gift cards cannot expire until five years from the date that the card is issued. But a gift card received through a promotional program can expire sooner. Read any fine print.

Consumers also need to watch the labels on their plastic. Did you just buy a gift card, which limits fees? Or did you just take a prepaid card off the rack? Prepaid cards can come with more fees, and you need to read those rules.

Lesson learned: Use gift cards promptly, and be careful not to lose them. Read terms of any bonus cards or prepaid cards carefully.

BE AWARE OF DECEPTIVE DELIVERIES AND SCAM SERVICES: The fraudsters take advantage of the rush-rush nature of the season. So don't fall for a fake text from that's supposedly from your bank.

Lesson learned: Phishers often pose as well-known retailers or shipping companies to gain false credibility. Do not go to any websites where these scam callers say you must go to correct a problem.

I took a phone call the other day from some guy named Ronnie who insisted that he could help me with the Windows on my computer. Amazingly, Ronnie from Indiana would not tell me what scam he was running when I asked. Yep, I kept that turkey on the line with lots and lots of questions.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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