Know Your Rights: Refunds and Exchanges

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Ever tried to return or exchange a purchase, but got denied? Have you seen deceptive marketing or fraudulent claims? Chances are you have – today’s advertising claims make Don Draper look like Gandhi. On the bright side, there are many consumer protections in place to protect you against false advertising and unsafe products, and even impulse buys. If you’ve been denied a return or exchange, you may still have recourse.

In this article:

Understanding your rights and responsibilities

There are eight basic consumer rights and responsibilities outlined in the Consumer Bill of Rights and UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection:

Right Responsibility

Safety Protection from goods, services or production processes that are hazardous to our health Use goods safely, following instructions and staying on top of issued warnings

Information Have truthful and accurate information Analyze and use information wisely

Choice A wide selection at a fair price Choose wisely

Be Heard Have interests represented in creating goods and services Express concerns to relevant parties

Redress Request fair compensation for others’ mistakes Make an effort to seek reasonable compensation

Education Programs that promote informed purchasing decisions Take advantage of available programs

Healthy Environment Live and work in an environment that does not hurt current or future generations Minimize the impact of your consumption on yourself and your community

Have Basic Needs Met Access to food, shelter and water Live in a way that does not deprive others of their basic needs

These rights and responsibilities boil down to this: Companies must provide accurate information and ensure basic safety, but it’s your job to stay informed and use products as they were intended.

How does this work into refunds and exchanges? You’re entitled to compensation if:

  • The product is unsafe

  • The manufacturer or provider made a mistake

  • The product was deceptively marketed

Otherwise, any returns and refunds are at the merchants’ discretion. However, there may be some

Lies, damned lies and marketing

You might also have recourse if you fell victim to deceptive advertising. According to FTC guidelines:

  • Ads must be truthful

  • Ads must not contain a statement or omit information that:

    • Is likely to mislead reasonably acting consumers

    • Is important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product

  • Ads and business practices must not cause substantial injury that a consumer cannot reasonably avoid

  • Advertisers must be able to provide evidence for their claims before ads run

    • Anecdotal evidence (“I lost 60lbs in 4 weeks!”) does not count.

If you think you’ve fallen victim to deceptive advertising, file a complaint with the FTC.

Examples of deceptive marketing

The FTC ruled that Sketchers Shape-ups and other “toning shoes” made unfounded claims that the shoes would help lose weight or gain tone. They specifically singled out the Kim Kardashian ad that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl; feel free to insert your own Kardashian joke here. Sketchers agreed to pay out $40 million to settle the charges.

Airborne gained popularity with its claim to ward off colds. When this raised red flags, Airborne changed their claim to say it “boosts your immune system.” Given the anecdotal evidence to support these claims, many consumers failed to see any issue, but as the FTC guidelines state, anecdotes aren’t enough. In 2008, the company agreed to pay $23.3 million in a class-action lawsuit over false advertising.

Keep in mind that “deceptive” is a vague term. For example, there are legal repercussions to misusing the word “organic,” but as far as the FDA is concerned, “natural” has no legal definition. Like the meat it often describes, the term “all-natural” is pretty much baloney.

Other ways to get a refund

Even if the merchant refuses to take back an item, you might still have some recourse. The best way to avoid this, of course, is to check return policies beforehand. These policies range from final sale (this is typical on clearance items, swim and the like) to anytime-any condition returns like you’ll find at REI (which is lovingly referred to as the REI rental policy). You’ll probably pay a bit more for products with generous return policies, as the cost of restocking, return shipping and so forth are baked into the sale price. Past that, if a merchant won’t accept a refund:

Check your credit card return policy. Many credit cards offer return protection – for example, many Visa cards will make returns for up to 90 days, up to $250 per incident and $1,000 per year. However, these protections only apply if you use the card in question, so consider using the card with the best protections.

Speak up about mislabeled prices. Retailers aren’t always diligent about updating prices on their cash registers. If you think the price they are charging isn't right (i.e. you found the item on a sale rack or the tag reads differently), then speak up. You might be entitled to get the item free or at a discounted rate if you notice right away.

Take to social media. If you were mistreated as a customer, social media sites like Twitter or review sites like Yelp can give you a platform to share your experience. However, use this option if and only if you were truly wronged in the situation – don’t be a bully.

File a complaint. Again, use this option only if the merchant is clearly in the wrong; here, you’ll be asked to prove it. You can file a complaint with the FTC here.

If all else fails, eBay is your friend.