Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.

Dear Action Line:

This year I would like to purchase gifts for all of my nieces and nephews for Christmas. I have quite a big family and cannot dole out the cash for all of them at once. I have noticed that some of the larger retailers are offering layaway for holiday shopping. I am considering taking advantage of this program but I worry about some risks involved. Can you tell me the safest and most secure way to use a good layaway plan?

Dear Reader:

The layaway concept dates back to the Great Depression, when cash-strapped families found the idea of paying for items on a monthly or weekly basis attractive. The concept lost its luster in the days of easy credit, but it has been revived and proved popular in the last couple of years.

Many retailers rolled out their layaway plans for the holidays a month earlier than last year. Some are even offering additional incentives to use the layaway option, such as cutting fees and increasing the number of items eligible for layaway. But BBB serving Central California is warning that putting an item on layaway could result in some costly shopping blunders.

Additionally, third-party businesses have sprung up, offering online layaway plans between customers and retailers. Consumers can create and manage a payment schedule within their budget and make periodic payments to the third-party layaway service provider. Once the item is fully paid for, the business buys the item from the retailer and ships it to the customer.

For any consumer considering a layaway plan, BBB advises:

* Plan ahead. Before signing a layaway contract, make sure you can actually come up with the money to pay for the products. Unlike outstanding credit card debt, which will just accumulate interest, failure to pay your layaway means you don't just lose the product; you also lose any fees you may have paid.

* Obtain a written contract. Ask the company for a written contract and read it carefully. Contracts should include when payments must be made and what happens if a payment is late. Keep in mind that each company may have a different layaway policy.

* Confirm how long the item can be kept on layaway. Some stores only hold items for a specific number of months, and then redistribute them for resale.

* Ask where item(s) will be stored. Be sure your items will be placed in a secure area until all payments are made, so they won't be sold to other customers.

* Read the company's refund policy. What happens if you change your mind and decide not to purchase the item? Be sure to check if refunds are available.

For more tips you can trust visit www.cencal.bbb.org.

-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or joey@cencal.bbb.org.