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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com
updated 12/9/2008 1:34:07 PM ET 2008-12-09T18:34:07

It wouldn’t be December without a few holiday-related mass e-mails making the rounds.

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One advises how to spot products made in China. The other provides a list of retailers to avoid when buying gift cards.

They appear well-meaning, but both contain a great deal of erroneous information.

Product barcodes
“Where was it made?” the e-mail asks. It says you can tell by checking the first three digits of a product’s barcode. There’s a list of barcode numbers and the countries they supposedly represent. The message then encourages you to use them to avoid products made in China.

But barcodes don’t work that way.

“You cannot figure out where a product was made from the barcode that’s printed on the box it comes in,” says Jon Mellor with GS1 US, the not-for-profit organization that administers Universal Product Code numbers in the United States. The group is concerned some companies, possibly American companies, could lose business if people base their shopping decisions on this erroneous advice.

Barcode numbers are “keys” to information stored in a computer database. They identify the item and locate the correct price for the cash register. “The first two or three digits can tell you where a bar code was issued,” Mellor explains, “but it tells you nothing about where the product was actually manufactured.”

For instance, a U.S. company could have its toys made in China and its barcode issued in the U.S. Or a Chinese company could manufacture a product in Vietnam and have its barcode issued in Vietnam. There’s no way for you to know just by looking at those numbers.

The bottom line: If you want to find out where a product was made, check the package. Leave the barcodes for the scanner.

Gift card alert
This e-mail, which comes in a variety of versions, seems to be a friendly “heads up” for anyone buying gift cards. “Stores that are planning to close after Christmas are still selling the cards through the holidays even though they will be worthless January 1,” it warns.

The message provides a long list of stores “to be cautious about.” It's easy to assume all the stores on the list will be going out of business by the end of the year. They are not.

Yes, the shaky economy makes it riskier to give gift cards this holiday season. As I told you a few weeks ago , many consumer groups urge shoppers to avoid retail gift cards this year because they can be wiped out if a store closes. But the decision whether to give gift cards should not be made on erroneous information.

“That e-mail is based on nothing but lies,” says Kathy Grannis, media relations manager at the National Retail Federation. “There's a very large difference between a retailer filing for bankruptcy, a retailer going out of business and a retailer closing a few stores and that e-mail does not delineate the difference,” she notes.

Some of the information in the e-mail is correct. Sharper Image is gone, the Bombay Company went bust, and Linens 'N Things is liquidating. But the e-mail also contains a great deal of false or misleading information. Here are just a few examples:

In a written statement, David Sternblitz, Zale’s vice president and treasurer, says the corporation is “financially strong.” Last fiscal year, it did close 106 underperforming locations but opened 47 others. The company currently operates more than 2,100 locations in the U.S and Canada.

The Zale Corporation did close some Piercing Pagoda stores, but there are no plans to shut down the rest of them. “In fact, we have cited the brand as one of our growth opportunities,” Sternblitz writes.

My two cents
If you get a mass e-mail of any kind, please do your friends and family a big favor – check it out before you pass it along. It’s almost certain to contain bogus information of some kind.

There are several good sites you can visit:

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