The Wall Street Journal recently published an article discussing a growing practice among retailers who use third-party services to identify fraudulent returns. These services will inform retailers when they think a return is fraudulent, and some retailers will reject returns based on this information, notwithstanding what is in their return policies. The article presents an example of consumer who was surprised when a retailer rejected his return and then referred him to the third-party service.
Although retailers generally have broad discretion about how to structure their return policies, there are some legal boundaries. For example, some states have specific requirements about what must be in a return policy and how it must be disclosed. More broadly, federal and state consumer protection laws generally require that retailers clearly disclose material terms prior to a purchase. This arguably includes terms of a return policy, including any exceptions under that policy.
Third-party services that help detect return fraud can provide significant benefits for retailers. (According to the article, less fraud can also benefit consumers because retailers can offer more generous policies.) But retailers should use care when relying on these services. If a customer complies with a retailer’s return policy, and the retailer rejects the return based on information from a third-party, the retailer is likely to face complaints. Simply pointing a finger at the third-party is unlikely to help.
One key question in any consumer complaint – or worse, AG investigation or law suit – will be whether the retailer acted in accordance with its policies and whether those policies were adequately disclosed. Articles such as the one in the Wall Street Journal often serve as food for thought for class action attorneys, so if you are using (or thinking about using) a third-party service to identify fraudulent returns, now might be a good time to take a look at your policy.