Jewish World Review Dec. 22, 2004 / 10 Teves 5765

Felice Cohen

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Consumer Reports

Big Brother knows all about my return status | I shop therefore I am. And I return because I am entitled. Or maybe not, according to some retailers. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, consumers are buying up reindeer sweaters, scenic calendars and pre-made baskets of aromatic body lotions. In today's faced-paced world, it's hard to find the time to pick out that perfect gift. Which leaves many a gift-getter with a pile of returns.

So what's the big deal? Can't we just go to the store and tell them Aunt Ida bought us this gift and we want to return it? Nope. It's no longer so simple. Because of Return Fraud — where people return stolen merchandise for cash or store credit — many retailers are making it harder for consumers to return items.

According to the National Retail Federation, stores face $16 billion worth of return fraud a year, causing retailers to raise prices, which only hurts the honest consumer.

To combat these return offenders, many stores have begun tracking returns. If you have a receipt, you're pretty much in the clear. But if you don't, get ready to rumble. Many large chains like Target and Wal-mart, will ask for your driver's license. Both retailers track returns in-house. At Target, you're only allowed three returns a year. At Wal-mart, you're allowed three returns in a 45-day span. After that, you're "flagged," meaning your next return requires a manager's signature and you go on probation for six months.

Other companies send your personal information to The Return Exchange, a company that monitors consumers' return histories.

"We look for fraud or abusive behaviors on product returns," said Mark Hammond, the CEO of The Return Exchange, "through the frequency of return, the amount of time, and the amount of dollars that they spend."

New York's Sen. Chuck Schumer revealed that more than 200 stores in the metropolitan are have adopted secret "blacklists" that target people who make "excessive returns."

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Curious about how much Big Brother knows about my own return status, I called The Return Exchange for a free history report. To my relief, my "Return Activity Report" listed only four returns since 2003, including the store, the amount and receipt status.

I understand some people hate the hassle of returning, leaving many to accept their purchases as final. But to me it's the principle. We work hard for our money and cannot afford to waste it.

I recently upgraded my cell phone to a newer model. Three days later I exchanged it, receipt in hand, because the sound wasn't good. But three days later I was back.

"Again?" the same salesman asked.

"Would you buy shoes without trying them on?" I replied.

For all we can return, there are some things we cannot. Like siblings. My first attempt at returning something came at age five. My baby sister was a few months old and not as fun as promised, so I asked my mom, "Can we take her back?"

For everything else, save your receipts.

Comment on JWR contributor Felice Cohen's column by clicking here.


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© 2004, Felice Cohen