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BBB Tips for Black Friday Shoppers: What are the rules for redeeming gift cards?

The Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner, and some retailers have already announced at least some of their Black Friday specials. Though more and more stores are opening their doors to shoppers on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday -- the ...

The Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner, and some retailers have already announced at least some of their Black Friday specials.

Though more and more stores are opening their doors to shoppers on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday - the day after Thanksgiving - remains one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota is offering advice to Black Friday shoppers.

"For many people, Black Friday is a family tradition; a fun group activity after their Thanksgiving celebration," said Dana Badgerow, president and CEO of BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota, in a news release. "For others, it's a chance to get a lot of holiday shopping done in one fell swoop. Either way, consumers still need to keep their eyes on the bottom line."

The National Retail Federation forecasts that holiday sales will increase by roughly 3.7 percent this year, significantly higher than the 10-year average of 2.5 percent. As always, retailers will compete feverishly to get shoppers to visit their stores - and their websites! Whether you'll be doing your holiday shopping on BlackFriday or beyond, be sure to keep these BBB tips in mind to help ensure a satisfactory experience:

• Do your research. Visit bbb.org or call 800-646-6222 to obtain free Business Reviews. Remember, BBB Business Reviews have been optimized for smartphones.

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• Make sure you're getting a real deal. Do you know if a sale is really a sale? Many times companies boast "70 percent off," but 70 percent off of what? It always pays to comparison shop. If a company is advertising a "Going out of Business" sale, don't automatically assume they are offering the best prices in town. Take the time to check prices on the same items at other stores.

• Search for Black Friday Ads Ahead of Time. Many retailers now announce their Black Friday specials well in advance of the shopping holiday. Newspapers often have coupons that outline store discounts for Black Friday, and some specials are posted online.

• Ask the right questions. Be sure to be clear on the store's return policy before making a purchase. Companies are not required to give money back, but they need to post their return policy prominently near the cashier. Also, always ask about restocking fees, and save receipts in one place so they aren't lost. Many companies will require a receipt for a return. Ask for gift receipts.

• Watch out for online deals too good to be true. While many retailers offer 'doorbusters' - specials designed to bring customers into stores - some websites offer suspiciously low prices on sought-after goods in an effort to entice shoppers into turning over their credit card information. Stick to trustworthy websites and look for BBB's seal and other recognized "trust marks." Be sure to click on the seals to confirm they are valid.

Gift cards

Gift cards regularly top consumers' wish lists. Federal rules govern gift card sales, and those rules state:

• An inactivity fee cannot be charged until the card has not been used for 12 months. However, there may be a charge to replace a lost or stolen card.

• Gift cards cannot expire for at least five years or five years from the last date additional money was loaded onto the card. No more than one fee (of any kind) can be charged to the cardholder in a single month.

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• The expiration date must be clearly disclosed on the card, and any fees must be disclosed as well. You should also see a toll-free phone number or website where you can get more information.

• A one-time fee can be charged when you buy the card, though this generally only applies to gift cards purchased through your credit card company - not those purchased directly from stores and restaurants.

• If on the receiving end of a gift card, it should be redeemed promptly if, possible.

Finally, consumers should keep in mind that even if they miss a sale there will be many more opportunities for savings as we go through the long holiday shopping season.

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