Many happy returns
“Our advice is for consumers to ask for and read return policies before buying or ordering something.”
— Frank Dorman,
Federal Trade Commission
“They give with one hand and take it back with the other.”
— Edgar Dworsky,
It was a fascinating Christmas. Among the presents I received were a bacon cookbook, a bacon candy bar and a spectacular T-shirt that says, “Bacon is a vegetable” on the front of it. Clearly, my family has realized that I really like bacon. The candy bar is already gone and I’ll certainly be wearing the shirt and using the cookbook, but if you weren’t as fortunate in the gift department, you might just be heading back to the store to return some of your gifts.
While there are state and federal laws that govern gift cards, there are no federal laws governing the return of store purchases. Even the state laws that exist in the area generally try to strike a fair balance between the honest consumer who is genuinely trying to return something and the store that has to protect itself against fraud and theft.
Ohio has a state statute that governs gift cards. When it was enacted in 2006 it was the only game in town, but many of its provisions were superseded by the adoption, in 2009, of the federal Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act. Among other things, the federal legislation provides that gift cards must be good for at least five years from the date that they were issued or last recharged, that maintenance fees can only be charged if the card has been inactive for one year and that information about fees and charges must be printed on the card or on an information sheet that comes with it.
If you’re returning a gift to the store, you are largely at the mercy of the policies that the store sets. The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that four out of five stores tightened those policies this year. Many stores have shortened the return time on electronics or provided that technological devices cannot be returned at all once out of the original packaging. Other stores have limits on how often you can return items or the total value of items that can be returned. Online giant Amazon.com has more than 30 different return policies depending on the nature of the item being returned.
Retailers are attempting to counter a growing number of schemes used to defraud. In fact, the NRF reports that fake holiday returns will cost more than three and one half billion dollars this year — a cost that will be passed on to honest consumers. In the most basic of schemes, thieves simply steal merchandise and then return it to the store seeking a refund for items that they never paid for in the first place. The NRF says 90 percent of stores have been victims of that feint.
To counter that ploy, some stores require that a sales receipt or gift receipt be provided at the time of the return. Not to be deterred, criminals have begun to counterfeit receipts for stolen items in an attempt to be able to return them hassle-free.
One of the newer trends is something that retailers call ‘wardrobing,’ a term that originated from the fact that it began as a trend involving high-end clothing. In a wardrobing ploy, someone will purchase an article of fancy clothing, wear it one time and return the item for a full refund. The scheme has expanded to include high-end electronics and other items. To counter wardrobing retailers now often require that high-end items be returned with all original tags still attached.
You can also expect that retailers will ask for identification when you return an item. Your personal information is used by retailers to track your return habits through a California company called The Retail Equation. TRE tracks return and refund trends and warns of customers who return a large quantity or value of items, a system that operates in much the same way that credit card companies scan for suspicious and potentially fraudulent activity on credit cards.
The simplest way to have an easy return experience is to have all original tags and manuals, to keep items in their original packaging, if possible, and to have a store receipt as proof of purchase. Gift receipts are equally valuable.
Being mindful of store policies will make your gift returning experience far more pleasant. As for me, there are no returns in my future. Come spring, I’ll be proudly wearing my “Bacon is a vegetable” T-shirt.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and reports that, despite his love of bacon, his cholesterol level is quite good.