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Returning the Gift That Makes
You Look Fat

Guidelines for both givers and receivers

Santa may find milk and cookies on his arrival, but you may get a less jolly reception when you try to return unwanted gifts this holiday season. About one in nine retailers is tightening return policies, reports the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Stores blame the stricter rules on estimates that fraudulent return of merchandise will ring up at about $3.7 billion this season — nearly $1 billion more than last year. The most common form is the return of stolen merchandise by shoppers or employees. Others include the return of items bought with counterfeit money or stolen credit cards or by using phony receipts.

Merchants also expect a big uptick in "wardrobing," in which people legitimately buy clothing, TVs or other merchandise, then return them after a one-time use for a special occasion.

What the gift giver should know

To create happy returns for the one in five Americans who will return at least one holiday gift in coming weeks, the gift giver should:

  • Know the store's return policy, which is usually posted near the register, at the customer service desk or on receipts.
  • Avoid paying with cash. According to Consumer Reports magazine, many retailers that used to offer at least store credit for a return without a receipt may now be less generous, especially when the buyer paid with cash. If the purchase was made with a check, credit or debit card, however, the store might be able to locate an electronic receipt and be more willing to take a return.
  • Hold on to original sales receipts and request a gift receipt, which will usually include no price, if it's not automatically provided.
  • If the gift comes in a sealed box, don't open it. Wrap it and include the gift receipt. If the item was purchased online, all return, packing and shipping forms and instructions should be given to the recipient.
close-up of female shopper carrying numerous bags

— Alexander Walter/Getty Images

What the recipient should know

If you want to return a gift, consider these tips:

  • Act quickly. Many retailers allow 90 days from the purchase date for most merchandise, but you should expect shorter windows for certain items — typically CDs, DVDs and computer software (all of which can only be returned unopened) and electronics.

    For instance, electronics purchased at Wal-Mart usually must be returned within 15 or 30 days (though this year the clock doesn't start ticking until Dec. 26 for purchases made between Nov. 15 and Christmas).

Don't forget your ID: Many retailers will ask to see a driver's license. >>

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