Shopping Overseas with Credit Cards

BY Beth Williams


Victim of travel crime

In most foreign countries, consumer protection laws are different from those in the U.S. With the exception of certain protections under the Fair Credit Billing Act, the laws of the country in which you make the purchase prevail, so be sure that you understand all the terms of the sale, including shipping arrangements, before you sign a sales slip.

You may be surprised when you purchase items overseas to find that some merchants have “no refunds” or “all sales final” policies. In some countries no exchanges or refunds are normally given unless the merchant promised them in advance. Get refund or exchange policies in writing! Use the following tips to help ensure that you’ll still be happy with your purchases when you return home:

Keep your receipts and any documentation of purchases in a safe place. Overseas sales slips may just list a total purchase amount without a breakdown of the charges, so you may want to ask for an itemization of your purchases.

Ask specifically about return and exchange policies. These may not be posted and can be very different from the U.S., where many stores promise “satisfaction guaranteed.” (If no policy is posted, you should assume no refunds or exchanges are allowed.) If the merchant agrees to accept returns or exchanges, get it in writing. Also confirm who will pay shipping and customs fees in the case of returns. Without a written agreement that the merchant will pay these fees, they will be your responsibility.

Before you travel, familiarize yourself with U.S. customs policies regarding prohibited and restricted items. Some items such as elephant ivory, fireworks, fur, leather, fruits and vegetables, or “pirated” music cassettes or computer software, may be prohibited or restricted by the U.S. Customs Department.

In addition, some states prohibit the importation of certain types or amounts of liquor or agricultural items. Prohibited items may be confiscated and you may be subject to a fine if you try to bring them into the U.S. For more information on prohibited or restricted items, refer to the U.S. Customs brochure, Know Before You Go, also listed on this web site.

If you purchase an item with your credit card and are unable to bring it into the U.S., your credit card company is not obligated to give you a refund and will probably not be able to get one for you from the merchant. Also be aware that in some countries, items such as artwork may require an export license. This may incur additional fees. Ask before you buy.

Beware of prices that are “too good to be true” and merchandise that may be counterfeit. Some U.S. citizens have bought jewelry or expensive rugs or artwork overseas, only to find out they were not as valuable, or were of a lower grade or quality than they thought or than the merchant represented them to be. If value or originality is a key factor in your decision to purchase an item, make sure to get a professional, independent appraisal in writing before you buy gemstones ([Broken] see web site on gem stones), artwork, or any other expensive items.

If you buy anything valuable, get a complete written description of the item including promises about origin, quality, grade or content, signed and dated by the store manager or owner. If you do not have complete documentation, you may have little recourse should the item prove to be less valuable than you thought. Even with documentation, your credit card company may not be able to get a refund for you. Remember, the Fair Credit Billing Act usually does not protect you in disputes over the quality of goods or services bought overseas.

If the merchant provides certificates of authenticity or appraisals, keep them with you as you travel. Do not have them shipped with the merchandise. Shipping purchases to the U.S. If you decide to have items you buy abroad shipped back to the U.S., get complete shipping details in writing from the merchant, including a shipping date, and how it will be shipped. Understand that if your purchase is shipped by boat, it may take a couple of months to receive. To help your purchases survive the trip intact, ask the merchant to confirm in writing that your purchase will be packaged for shipping.

Insurance can protect you in case your purchase is lost or damaged in shipping. Get written details of what is covered, including who will be responsible if the item arrives damaged or is lost, and instructions on what to do if that happens. If you don’t have written confirmation and there is a problem with the shipment of your merchandise, your credit card company may not be able to secure a refund for you. Duties or customs fees on items that are shipped back to the U.S. are your responsibility, not the merchant’s. If you later return an item, the merchant is unlikely to refund those fees.

V.A.T. refunds: In some countries, especially in Europe, you can get a refund of Value Added Tax (VAT) you paid on items or services purchased there. (A value added tax is similar to a sales tax.) You may want to contact the embassy of the country to which you’re going for information on this tax before you leave.

If you think you may be entitled to a VAT refund, you must normally apply for the refund before you leave the country where you bought the items. You may be able to get VAT forms from the stores where you bought your purchases, or you can get them at the airport or train terminal. You must get the forms stamped by the Foreign Customs Officer at the airport or train terminal. VAT taxes may be refunded on your credit card or by check, depending on the policy of the store where you bought the item.