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How to Return Products You Bought Online and Get Your Money Back

10 common problems to watch out for

woman in face mask and gloves handing boxes for return merchandise

E+ / Getty Images

En español | COVID-19 has many of us shifting much of our shopping online, and that means a lot more returns. Nearly 30 percent of products purchased online are sent back, compared with roughly 10 percent of in-store purchases, according to B-Stock Solutions, a liquidation platform.

Online shopping returns should be (and often are) super easy — just pop the item in the box, ship it off and wait for your money to get credited back to your credit card or account. But exceptions happen more than we wish, and the pandemic has added new challenges, among them shifting store policies, processing delays and a wave of retailer bankruptcies.

As always, the best way to avoid problems is to check an online store's return policies for deadlines, costs and processes before ordering. Here are 10 gotchas to watch out for — and how to deal with them.

1. Your return credit is in limbo. Getting an online refund can take a while. Amazon, for example, suggests it can take up to a month for you to receive a credit, depending on the type of payment used, including processing time. COVID-related delays can stretch out time frames even further. To speed things up, see if you can return items purchased online at a retailer's store. If that's not an option, have your return tracking number and order number on hand and complain until you get your money back. It's a tactic that has worked for me.

2. The retailer is AWOL. To avoid getting stung by shifty websites or bad customer service, pay with a credit card, which has more protections than debit cards and other payment types, says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst for CreditCards.com. When he recently bought an item online that didn't arrive and the seller was unresponsive, he disputed the charge and got his money back through a refund issued by his card issuer, which is called a charge-back; you can also get one for merchandise you were billed for but returned. For details on how to get a charge-back, go to consumer.ftc.gov, click on Money & Credit, then Credit & Loans, then scroll down to Disputing Credit Card Charges.

3. The company declares bankruptcy. Return ASAP! The vast majority of bankruptcies this year are Chapter 11 reorganizations, so most of those retailers are still in business. J. Crew's parent company, for example, declared bankruptcy in May, but as of August you could still shop online and return items. Unfortunately, many companies in Chapter 11 end up shutting down for good, like Modell's, Pier 1 and A.C. Moore.


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4. Your return is turned down. According to the Better Business Bureau, stores are not legally required to give refunds unless merchandise is defective or misrepresented. Return deadlines can vary widely from store to store and even from item to item. If you can't return an item for any reason, check to see if your credit card offers return protection, which will reimburse you. Just beware that there are coverage caps, deadlines and reams of paperwork to fill out. Another tactic is to sell the item on a resale site like eBay. Or check out Amazon's trade-in program, which pays you in gift cards for unwanted products.

5. You get socked with high fees. Always check online store policies for return shipping and restocking fees. Amazon's policy: If a customer misses the return window the item is no longer eligible for return. Apple charges a 15 percent fee on iPhones and iPads. Best Buy may charge 15 percent, and $45 for a cellphone, tablet or wearable device. Another nasty surprise to watch out for: return shipping fees, which you might be able to avoid by returning the item to a store. Or call customer service and ask (nicely!) to have the shipping fee waived. When I returned pants to Eddie Bauer recently, I did just that and saved $7.

6. You bought it on Amazon, but Amazon didn't sell it. Avoid Amazon return problems by checking to see if a product is sold by a third party, also known as a marketplace seller. Look for the words “ships and sold by” under the Add to Cart button. Then click on the seller name to look up its return policy; while you're there, check for shipping costs and restocking fees as well as ratings and reviews.

7. You opened the package. Don't assume you're out of luck. Just check the store policy. Retailers do take back some opened merchandise. Sephora, Ulta and other stores will even let you return used makeup.


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8. You tossed the box. Items may be required to be in “like new” or “original” condition. So even if an opened item can be returned, always save packaging, manuals, tags and other paperwork. To avoid disputes, pack items so that they won't get damaged in shipping. If you don't have the packaging and you purchased the item from Amazon, you're in luck: You can return unboxed Amazon items inside Kohl's stores.

9. The product is kaput, but the return deadline has passed. If a store won't take back an item that stopped working, try contacting the manufacturer. Most electronics and appliances come with manufacturer warranties, according to the Better Business Bureau. Also, many credit cards extend the coverage period for manufacturer warranties and offer purchase protection that covers damage as well as theft.

10. You're blacklisted! Are you denied a refund because a retailer claims you have made too many returns already? Then you need to know about the Retail Equation, a behind-the-scenes company that tracks returns for retailers and flags buyers that it suspects of fraudulent or what it calls “abusive” returns. If you think you've been unjustly denied a return for being labeled a “returnaholic,” go to TheRetailEquation.com for more info.

Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the Hot Shopping Tips podcast, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports and an investigative reporter for The Dr. Oz Show.

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