Whether it's a newspaper ad for a giant blowout sale or a TV pitch promising to save you hundreds on car insurance, some advertisers have a way of stretching the truth to get you to open your wallet. ShopSmart, the shopping magazine published by Consumer Reports, recently highlighted tricky ad claims that companies frequently make and offered advice on how to avoid getting suckered in.
“There are lots of great deals out there, but sometimes advertising can be deceptive,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. “But if you pay close attention, you'll find there's language in ads that can tip you off to deals that aren't as good as they might seem or outright rip-offs.”
•Claim: Save big at our giant blowout sale.
Translation: It's sale after sale around here. If you ever buy anything at full price, you're a fool.
Warning: Don't be blinded by a sea of “sale” signs in many stores. Just because an item is supposedly offered at a discount doesn't mean it's a good deal.
•Claim: Free Bahamas trip, no strings attached.
Translation: We'll put you up in a skeevy hotel if you attend our all-day sales pitch.
Warning: Offers for free and discounted trips come in many varieties. Some are used to entice you to buy a product or service or to sink your money into dubious investments that earn big commissions for the people who sell them. Others are outright scams to get you to turn over a credit card number. Bottom line: Skip free trips!
•Claim: This product has a lifetime warranty.
Translation: As soon as the product is no longer available or we stop carrying it, the “lifetime” is over.
Warning: Generally, there's no legal definition of what “lifetime” means in warranty-speak. ShopSmart recommends reading the fine print for any gotchas before you buy.
•Claim: Buy one of our new cars, and we'll pay off your old car loan.
Translation: We'll combine the amount you still owe on your old car with a loan for the new one. And we'll make the term so long that you'll be paying it off for the rest of your life, during which you'll mostly be broke.
Warning: Don't get a new car until you've finished paying for the old one, especially if you owe more than its trade-in value. And avoid car loans with terms longer than 48 months.
•Claim: Get our credit card and receive a 5 percent rebate on gas.
Translation: Our 5 percent rebate applies to categories that change every three months. And if you neglect to sign up, tough luck.
Warning: Increasingly, credit cards are reserving big rebates for categories that change every quarter, and you have to re-enroll each time. Some cards pay higher rewards on fixed categories and don't make you jump through hoops, such as the Pentagon Cash Rewards card. It automatically pays 5 percent back on gas with no limits on rewards. (To get that card you must be a government employee or donate to a military charity).
•Claim: We'll help you get rid of your debt.
Translation: After we get our fee from you, the only debt we'll eliminate is our own.
Warning: When you owe money that you can't pay, your first move should be to try to work something out with the creditor (even the IRS), such as a payment plan.
ShopSmart also suggests developing a plan to get your spending under control. A nonprofit credit counselor can help, but don't assume that it's legit just because it's not for profit. A good first step is to check a program's reputation at BBB.org and search the program's name and complaints online.