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How to Complain and Get Results: A Guide for Consumers

What to do before you buy and 7 steps to score refunds

spinner image shopper making purchase at store counter that displays a sign about the return policy: "No refund or exchange on sale merchandise"
Stockbyte / Getty Images

Before you buy, it's crucial to do your homework. Today's online marketplace is crowded with fake websites hawking everything from Prada purses to personal protective equipment (PPE), says Steve J. Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. “I've never seen so many fake websites in my life,” the 33-year veteran of the nonprofit says.

Online shopping has exploded during the pandemic, so stick with well-known, reputable merchants. Before purchasing, check out a company's BBB rating, which ranges from A+ to F based on three years of consumer data. Examine other consumer-rating sites, too, he says. If it's a service you're seeking, don't merely do a Google search for “painters near me” because companies can pay to be listed at the top of the search results.

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Let's say you want to hire someone to replace your powder room's Pepto-Bismol pink tile. Insist on a detailed contract before you sign on the dotted line, Bernas urges. Many times, consumers think a business card with a dollar estimate scribbled on the back is a contract. But imagine standing before a judge with that card as Exhibit A — and no other proof. A contract should include the work that will be performed, the total cost, the materials and products that will be used, and the job's start and end dates, he says.

Laying the groundwork

If you find yourself unhappy with a product or service you've paid for, there are steps to take to get a refund or replacement — especially if a business is reluctant to meet your demands.

But it's important to understand that successful complaining starts before you actually lodge a complaint. Be sure to keep your paperwork in one place for easy access: proof of your order or contract and receipt. Take photos of a defective product or workmanship.

It's also critical to be familiar with the merchant's return policy. “Refunds and exchanges are a privilege, not a right,” Bernas says, so think carefully if you're buying a big-ticket item and the terms are “all sales final.” Many companies do accept returns — usually during a specific time frame — but you might have to pay the cost of shipping it back. And some merchants deduct “restocking fees,” so you won't get a full refund.

When possible, pay with a credit card. Federal law says credit card users are generally on the hook for only up to $50 in cases of fraud. Also, some card issuers will issue a credit if you tried to return an item within 90 days but the merchant refused to refund your money. One major card issuer gives a credit of up to $300 per item, excluding shipping and handling, within the 90-day window, and caps annual refunds at $1,000 per cardholder. Such terms vary based on the card, so read the fine print carefully.

7 steps to lodging a successful complaint

Now that you've laid the groundwork, here's how to complain and get results:

1. If there's a problem with a good or service, make it known promptly. Keep detailed notes of your outreach to and conversations with customer service: “On this day, I called [phone number] and spoke to [employee's name/number] and was told [thus and such].”

2. If you don't get satisfaction, escalate your complaint to a supervisor.

3. Still not satisfied? Consider a letter to the company's president or CEO. Here's a sample complaint letter.

4. Keep your cool. Emotions are running high due to the pandemic—and nobody likes a screamer regardless. Be polite and persistent; never treat a customer-service representative poorly since they did not cause the problem you want to fix.

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5. Be reasonable. If you've used a tent to camp at Yellowstone National Park or worn a pair of shoes while out running errands, don't try to return the item as if unused. If you've bought a half-dozen glasses and one arrives broken, don't ask for a second complete set for your trouble; settle for a single replacement glass instead.

6. Still no luck? Share your problem on a social media platform such as Facebook or Twitter. Big companies tend to pay attention to these complaints because they are visible to the public.

7. Consider outside help. Take your case to your state consumer protection agency. Or contact the BBB. Some media outlets have consumer affairs reporters who handle selected disputes. If the stakes are high, you might consult with a lawyer.

At the BBB, which seeks to resolve consumer disputes, Bernas says “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” Some people don't want to take the time to complain, but when they do, it helps organizations like his evaluate businesses. Unfortunately, every industry has bad apples but making that known to others can help consumers from taking a bite and being left with the same sour taste.

FTC: Know the laws governing purchases

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal rule says that if you’ve purchased an item by mail, on the internet or by phone, merchants must have a reasonable basis for stating that they can ship the item within a certain time. If they do not, they must believe the item can be shipped within 30 days, so it’s called the “30-day rule.” If after taking an order the merchant determines it cannot ship within the stated time, or within 30 days, the merchant must seek a customer’s consent to the delayed shipment or promptly issue a full refund for unshipped merchandise. (The FTC does not resolve individual consumers’ disputes, but it takes complaints online.)

Another rule, the three-day right to cancel a sale, applies if a seller has set up a temporary location such as a hotel room, convention center, fairground or restaurant, the FTC says. But many things are exempt from the so-called Cooling-Off Rule, including real estate, insurance and securities; also, motor vehicles (if the seller has a permanent place of business) and arts and crafts (if sold at a fair and other specified locations).

Relevant state and local rules vary.

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