10 tips to be a better consumer

Who said shopping was easy? If we aren’t pelted with news about product recalls, tainted foods and questionable financial products and policies, we’re on the alert for scams and fraud. There’s been a lot of finger pointing in the past few year’s, especially towards negligent companies and government policies that don’t offer enough protection. We can’t always rely on others to keep us informed and safe — or to ensure we steer clear of scams.

However, as consumers, we have more power — and responsibility — than we think. Here are some ways to be better consumers.

Do your research

There should be no guessing when it comes to purchasing a product, whether you’re buying goods from a store, purchasing insurance or getting a loan. However, the provided information may not tell the whole story. To get a broader view, experts warn to research the products you plan to purchase. Ask for advice and recommendations from people you trust, check with consumer organizations and read reviews online. Get a sense for what things cost, and learn how to spot good quality versus poor workmanship.

Know who you’re dealing with

Are you working with and buying from reputable companies? These days, it can be hard to tell — especially when the sales pitches comes online or over the phone. That’s why it’s also important to know with whom you are dealing — especially in industries that are ripe with potential fraud, like travel, home renovations and investments.

If you’re working with a new company, run a quick online search or look to organizations like the Better Business Bureau. Many provinces also have “Consumer Beware” list or database through the government department responsible for consumer affairs. (For instance, Ontario’s Consumer Beware List.)

Take time to read the details

Reading the fine print is a step many people still over look. When we’re short on time — or there’s a line up behind us — it’s easy to skim over contracts, warranties, exclusions and return policies. Experts warn to take the time to read through important information, ask questions and seek clarification if needed. We often make mistakes if we give in to pressure — so delay your purchase if you need more time.

Another step we often skip: reading the directions and safety instructions before we use a product. The information may seem like common sense, but it’s up to consumers to know it and follow it.

Keep a paper trail

Where did that receipt, policy or warranty go? If you’ve ever lost one of these documents, you know some businesses are more forgiving than others. It’s up to consumers to get the details in writing — and keep them safely filed away. (That means finding a home for all those receipts, warranties, agreements, policy documents and other paperwork associated with our transactions.) Sometimes a digital copy or photocopy will do — but it depends on the company.

In addition, if there’s an issue you have to resolve, don’t forget to jot down the details of your progress Try to note the specifics — like the name of the clerk with whom you dealt, the date and time and what action was promised.

Keep the environment in mind

We’re entitled to a healthy environment, and “voting with our dollars” is one way we can make our green intentions heard. For instance, we can choose products make from eco-friendly materials, or that use sustainable production practices. We can buy locally produced goods, and purchase fair trade products that benefit others in developing countries. We can refuse wasteful packaging and avoid items we don’t really need.

It isn’t just at the point of purchase where we can go green. Repairing, reusing, selling and donating items helps keep them out of landfills too.

Stay informed about safety issues

It’s easy to stay informed when a major recall hits the news, but many issues don’t make a media splash. For major items like a vehicle, the company will often send you a notice. However, you may have to do some searching for the dirt on other products. Here’s where to find the information:

– Watch for press releases and news items — especially online.

– Get in touch with the manufacturer.

– Check Health Canada’s Consumer Product Recalls page for current recalls and news, and use the searchable database of advisories.

– If you have any questions about a particular item, Health Canada has master list of consumer departments on its Contact Us page. You’ll also want to take this step if you’re buying or selling used items. Legally, it’s up to sellers to make sure their wares are safe — but there’s no guarantee that items have been well cared for or repaired. (See How safe is second-hand stuff? for details.)

Protect your information

It seems like we’re constantly asked to give out personal or financial information, and it’s not always clear how it will be used and by whom. Laws and protective measures don’t seem to go far enough, so it’s up to us to safeguard our personal and financial details.While we may be familiar with how to spot scams and protect our identity, legitimate business can misuse, share and even compromise our personal information.

When you’re asked for information, consider:

– Why is it required? For instance, does the shop really need your postal code to process your transaction? (Often we give out this information without thinking.)

– How will this information be used? Will companies collect data for marketing purposes? Will your information be shared? Will the company contact you?

When in doubt, it’s okay to say: “I don’t give out that information.” After all, once you’ve given out the information, you can’t take it back again.

Resolve problems effectively

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you already know there are right and wrong ways to handle a dispute. Reacting in anger, making threats and not addressing the problem with someone who has the appropriate authority can escalate the conflict. Appealing to a higher authority too soon can create needless hassle for consumers and businesses alike.

Not all consumers are aware of the procedure for settling issues. Here’s a quick overview of the steps:

– If you experience problems, experts recommend try addressing them with the business first. If a sales clerk can’t help you, talk to the supervisor or manager.

– Not successful dealing with a manager? Go higher up the food chain and talk to an owner or senior level executive or manager. Also, consider speaking to an internal ombudsman (if there is one).

– If you’re not having any success getting help in person or over the phone, write a letter to the company outlining your issue — including important details about what you’ve done to try and resolve the problem. (Those receipts and notes you kept will be invaluable here.)

– Sometimes it may be necessary to seek some outside help. Depending on the industry, you can talk to an ombudsman, consumer advocacy group or government regulatory department. Before you pick up the phone, review their terms and policies to make sure you have a legitimate complaint.

Take action

According to experts, complaining isn’t just our right — it’s our responsibility. Many safety issues, unfair policies and scams have been uncovered because consumers took the time to report them. How can you report a problem?

– Talk to the business or company involved.

– If you’ve been the victim of fraud, contact the police and the Anti-Fraud Call Centre (Phonebusters).

– If there’s a problem with consumer goods or cosmetics, contact Health Canada.

– If you’re concerned about a business’s policies or practices, contact your province’s consumer affairs department and the Better Business Bureau.

Don’t want to file a complaint? There are other ways to voice your concerns. Product reviews and review websites make it possible to share your dissatisfaction.

Know your rights and responsibilities

How can you find out more about consumer rights? The policies aren’t hard to find: many countries and provinces have them posted online, and the tenants are almost universal. For instance, consumers have a right to:

– Choice in the marketplace.

– Safe products and services.

– Fair and honest business practices.

– Complete and factual information to make informed choices.

– Have their complaints heard and addressed.

– Consumer education and advocacy.Depending on where you live, you can also find details about fair practices. For instance, Ontario has a 10-day cooling off period during which you can cancel a contract over $50. Also, if you’re sent goods you didn’t ask for, you aren’t required to pay for them — but you are entitled to use them. Information pertaining to certain sectors — like insurance, cars or travel — is also available.

Where can you find this information? Consumer protection legislation is handled at the provincial level, so look to your province’s consumer affairs department or consumer organization group.Unfortunately, having consumer protections in place isn’t enough to keep us safe from scams, unsafe products and unethical practices. Ultimately, the onus is on us, as consumers, to play a large part in protecting ourselves.

Sources: Health Canada, Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services, Alberta Consumers Association, Government of Saskatchewan Justice and Attorney General, Insurance Bureau of Canada

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ TommL

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