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(National) Nov. 26, 2004 - Kimberly Beetlestone loves to shop, but her time is limited, "I run in, I run out. I really don't have time to try on clothes, so whatever catches my eye I grab." Then if something doesn't fit she brings it back, no problem.
Until one day, "I brought my two items up to the counter, and basically they said, 'You're over your limit.'" Kimberly had reached her so-called "return limit," and the store refused to take back the clothes, "I had the receipt. I had the tags. They were unworn. Once the clerk told me that I had too many returns, I was basically shocked."
Some retailers track returns and know how many, when, if you had a receipt and the amount. Frances Smith of Consumer Alert says, "I don't think customers know that their returns are being tracked right now, and there are national chains that are doing it."
Some retailers do the tracking themselves, while others hire an outside company called the Return Exchange. Officials from the Return Exchange refused a request for an interview, but they sent a video statement from CEO Mark Hammond, who said, "We look for fraud or abusive behaviors on product returns through the frequency of return, the amount of time, the amount of dollars that they spend."
And, Scott Krugman of the National Retail Federation says stores battle a whopping $16 billion worth of return fraud every year, "It forces them to raise prices for the more than 99 percent of their honest loyal customers."
But, Smith says it's those honest, loyal customers about whom she's worried, "It looks like some legitimate customers, legitimate returns, might be getting snared in some of those tracking systems."
Jordana Beebe of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says one way you'll know you may be being watched, "If you're making a return or an exchange, and you're asked to hand over your driver's license, that company is using the Return Exchange, or they have an internal way of keeping track of return activity."
Experts say shoppers should ask, "Is there a return limit?" and, "Are you tracking my returns?" before you buy.
You can even find out whether the Return Exchange has a history on you. If there is one, get a copy, "See exactly what kind of history they have about you to give you a better idea of the stores that may revoke your privilege to make a return in the future."
Kimberly ordered hers, and it turned out she made eight returns to the same retailer in the last year, including the one the store initially refused. She complained to corporate and was eventually allowed an exchange. From now on she says, "I'm going to make sure that I ask that retailer, you know, what their limit is as far as returns and tracking before I make that purchase."
While Kimberly did get to exchange the item, the store told her she couldn't return anything else for at least 60 days.
To order your return history report simply call the Return Exchange at 1-800-652-2331. If they have a history on you, the company will send it to you for free.