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Becoming a Savvy Consumer

It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where every business and individual were trustworthy. Unfortunately that is not the case. We have all been victims or know someone who was a victim of purchasing shoddy merchandise, being approached by a scam artist, or buying something and discovering that the product didn't measure up to the advertising.

Here we'll give you some tips to prevent some of these things from happening and show you how to use your information competency skills to help you research products or services before purchasing.

Your Mailbox

cartoon of person being buried by junk mail spewing from a mailbox

In your mailbox at home, do you find yourself getting credit card, mortgage loan, and personal loan offers that are way below market rates, newsletters claiming the cure for cancer or strokes, or a mailing stating that you just won a million dollars?

Many of these, when you read the small print, are offering something quite different than originally stated. The credit card offer with 0% financing for 6 months in fine print on the back may indicate that the low rate will become quite high. The million dollars winning mailing, in fine print will say "if you have the winning number." The extremely low mortgage rate is likely a scam, as is the cure for cancer. Always check the source to see if it is reliable.

Be sure to shred or cut up these junk mail offers before you throw them out or you could become a victim of identity theft.

Your E-mail Box

Like your physical mailbox, your email box fills up with unsolicited offers. Some may be legitimate, some may be scams, some may have computer viruses attached. Most email services have junk mail filters you can sign up for, and there is virus detection software you can put on your computer as well.

animation of computer spewing junk email

Emails that sound overly friendly from someone you do not know may be a virus in disguise. It is often recommended not to open any attachments unless you know or trust the source that sent it to you. And even then you should think twice about opening attachments, as a friend's email can be taken over by a computer "worm" and be sending out emails that contain viruses without your friend knowing that it's happening.

If you are tempted to purchase something from an email, use a search engine to research the company. If you cannot find information on them, it may be best to abandon the offer.

Checking Quality and Pricing on Products

When you are planning a purchase of a product (car, electronics, etc), there are reliable information sources available to assist you. There are consumer magazines and articles in newspapers and general magazines. You can use the library databases to research your product. If an item is on sale or advertised, check the model number to see if it is rated in a publication. Remember that just because a specific Sony television is highly rated does not mean that all models are.

There are also differences between a source such as the well-respected magazineConsumer Reports, published by a non-profit which accepts no paid advertising, and a source that does take paid advertising, such as an auto or computer publication which is given free models to test and may even be paid money to test models.

Always read the fine print in the article and the information in the publication to determine what their policy is on what they test.

It can be helpful to go to the company's Web site, not for a review, but to compare the specifications included in the products.

screenshot showing comparison of ipod products

Web sites and publications sometimes look like they have reviews of items but they may actually be paid advertisements. In order to be listed, the business selling the product must pay and the description is prepared by the product owner. Legitimate sites will usually say "sponsored listings" or something similar.

If you know what specific product you want to buy and you are bargain hunting, there are Web sites that will compare prices, such as MySimon. There are also sites, such as, which allow consumers to write in their own reviews.


The first graphic on this page courtesy of the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and the second courtesy of

Chapter 10 — Page 7