According to the Consumer Federation of America, of the top ten consumer complaints in 2018, the third most frequent was concerned with retail sales: “False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.”
We all like to think that the retailers we buy from, either online or in person, are trustworthy, reasonably honest, and willing to honor their guarantees (as long as you pay attention to the small print). However, there are times when things go wrong: a package goes to the wrong address, a phone arrives with a ding in the case, the new TV set turns out to be the wrong model.
Often, simply contacting the retailer will fix the problem. If it’s obvious that the problem isn’t your fault, most retailers will either refund your money or provide you with a replacement. And sometimes, if it’s an understandable error (you clicked on model A2425A rather than model A2425B), they’ll make allowances.
If they don’t? If you’re trying to get satisfaction via the phone or in person and the staffer you’re talking to isn’t being helpful, sometimes simply requesting to talk to a manager (who is less dependent on the sale, and who has more power to tweak store policy) will make the difference.
If kicking the problem upstairs doesn’t work, then there are several strategies you can try. Note that you don’t have to try them one at a time; you can contact several of these resources simultaneously and see which responds.
Take time to cool off
There is actually a law administered through the Federal Trade Commission that mandates a three-day “cooling off” period to cancel a sale. There are a lot of exceptions to this rule; they include sales under $25 made at your home and sales made entirely online (thus leaving out anything you bought from, say, Amazon). But it’s good to know about, just in case.
Complain in public via social media
Companies monitor the major social media outlets for any mentions of their services or products. Sometimes tweeting a short summary of your complaint, with the company’s Twitter account name appended, will bring a fast response.
Contact your local consumer protection office
Most states have consumer protection offices whose job it is to help with these problems; some states have several local offices as well. You can find out what’s available in your state here.
Contact your state attorney general’s office
The National Association of Attorneys General has a page where all the current US state and territorial attorneys general are listed in alphabetical order (according to the state or territory with which they are associated). If you click on the photo of your state’s AG, it will lead to an information page with a link to their website. Click on the link, and you should be able to find either a form where you can register consumer complaints, or an email address where you can send a description of your problem.
Contact the Better Business Bureau
The Better Business Bureau has traditionally been a major resource for consumers. Using its site, you can check businesses to see what complaints they’ve received in the past, and you can register complaints of your own. According to the BBB website, it submits complaints within two business days; if the business doesn’t respond within two weeks, it submits the complaint again. Consumers are notified of the business’ response (if any).
Register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission
The FTC has an online “complaint assistant” which runs you through a series of questions in order to help you file a complaint with the appropriate agency.
Try small claims court
If all else fails, there’s always small claims court. The amounts you can sue for, and the rules governing small claims court, vary from state to state. The do-it-yourself legal site Nolo.com has a good overview of what to consider and how to proceed. If the amount you’re suing for is more than the maximum allowed by small claims (which can range from $2,500 to $25,000, depending on the state), then it may be time to consult a lawyer.
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