Say you ordered a product online, but what you received didn’t match the photos and description on the product page. Or you paid for a service you never received. Or you canceled a subscription, but the company continued charging your card anyway. Or you promptly returned an item you bought while it was still unused, in its original packaging.
In all those instances, you might expect to get a refund. But when are you actually entitled to get your money back?In the U.S., there’s no federal law that says merchants have to accept returns. However, retailers are required to provide a repair, exchange, or refund if a product is defective. And under the FTC’s “cooling off” rule, you have the right to cancel some sales within three days of the purchase and get a full refund.
In addition to this, many sellers have their own return and refund policies, and they generally uphold those (but not always!).
So what happens when they don’t? What do you do if you feel like you deserve your money back, but a company won’t issue you a refund? Our step-by-step guide will help you defeat shady and unfair businesses and get the justice — and refund — you deserve.
Before anything else, you should contact the seller and try to work things out.
Ask them why they aren’t willing to issue you a refund, and make sure you’re actually entitled to one, because you may not be.
For example, if you returned a product outside of the seller’s stated return window, unfortunately, that’s on you, and they don’t owe you your money back. Same goes for if you returned an item that you obviously used or damaged. Sometimes, if you buy an item on sale or clearance, the seller will state that the sale is final, and in that case, they don’t have to give you your money back if you return the item.
The good news is that most stores want to make their customers happy — it’s how they get repeat business and maintain a good reputation that brings in new customers. If you contact the seller and explain why you think you should get a refund, they very well might act in good faith and give you your money back. It might be necessary to escalate the complaint a little bit — if a customer service agent can’t help you, ask to speak to a store manager, supervisor, or owner.
If the business or seller refuses to help you resolve your complaint, and you still feel like you have a legitimate argument for having your money refunded, there are still other avenues you can take, including chargebacks, mediation, a lawsuit, or arbitration. Read on to learn more about those options and how each one can help you get your money back.
If you used a credit card for the purchase you’re trying to get refunded, you have a specific type of protection offered under the Fair Credit Billing Act of 1974, which allows you to ask your bank or the credit issuer to reverse the charge, taking money from the merchant and putting it back into your account. This is called a chargeback.
It may sound like a forced refund, but that’s not exactly how it works.
A chargeback is a serious process, and you should only request one if you have a legitimate dispute with a business and the business refuses to help you resolve it on their own.
The process varies a little bit depending on the credit issuer, but some parts are the same: You’ll submit your dispute, and then explain your case and include any evidence you have that shows you’re in the right and should get your money back. The credit issuer will investigate and ultimately decide to either reverse the charge, or deny your dispute. If they do reverse the charge in your favor, it can affect the merchant on the other end financially — they may need to pay administrative fees to the credit issuer, and businesses that accrue multiple chargebacks may have their bank accounts closed because of it.
Chargebacks are designed to be used for credit card purchases, so if you paid with a debit card, this may not be an option, or the process may be different. You can find out what your debit options are by calling the bank number on the back of your card.
If you paid with cash or another payment method, a chargeback isn’t an option. You can explore one of the other refund avenues below instead.
The business you’re trying to get a refund from might be willing to attend mediation. To mediate, both sides need to agree to attend, so the first step is to find out whether the seller is willing. Send them a letter outlining your complaint and suggesting mediation as a potential resolution. USA.gov offers a template for a complaint letter that you can use if you’re unsure how to write one.
If the seller agrees to mediation, you and a representative from their business will meet with an independent mediator. This person is not a judge, and they don’t have the power to decide anything legally binding. But professional mediators have had special training in helping two parties in a dispute reach resolution, and they’ll try to help you, too.
Mediators listen to both sides of the dispute, guide the discussion, and try to help you and the seller reach a compromise. This may happen at joint sessions where you and the merchant meet face-to-face, or the mediator may go between your two parties.
There are a few different ways you can find a qualified, professional mediator. Your state’s Attorney General’s office might have a mediation program you can use. There are also organizations and search tools that can help match you up with a qualified mediator, like the American Arbitration Association’s “Find a Mediator” tool.
Depending on how much of a refund you’re trying to get, suing the business in small claims court might be an option. Every state has its own small claims court system, and the limits are different for each — for example, in Alaska, you can sue in small claims for up to $10,000, while Arkansas has a $5,000 limit. You’ll have to do a little research to find out the limit in your state, and whether small claims court is an option for your dispute.
Small claims tries to make the complex court system a little more streamlined. You can typically file using simple forms that are often available online (though you’ll likely need to visit a courthouse to actually file them). There are fees involved, but they tend to be low. You also don’t need to have a lawyer in small claims court, though depending on the size of the company you’re going up against, you may want to have one anyway — if the business you’re suing comes with a lawyer and you don’t have one, you may be at a disadvantage.
If your claim against a company is larger than the limits your state has set on small claims court, you might consider suing them in regular civil court, but for this, you should definitely consult a lawyer first. Civil court cases can be long, drawn out, expensive, and complicated. You can win more money at the end, but it will take a lot more time and effort to do so.
In some disputes, suing in small claims court might not even be an option. If you’re seeking a refund from a cell phone, cable, or internet provider, there might have been a clause buried in the fine print of your contract saying that in the event of a dispute, you would resolve it via arbitration. These clauses are pretty common, and if you did indeed sign a contract containing one, the next option is the one you’ll likely want to take.
Consumer arbitration is a little bit like mediation. Both sides of the dispute will collect and present evidence and explain their side to a neutral third party, called an arbitrator. This could happen via email (a “documents-only” proceeding), or you may have a meeting on the phone or in person. The big difference between arbitration and mediation, though, is that the arbitrator will make a decision about who is right, and that decision is legally binding and generally final. In most arbitration cases, you agree not to appeal the arbitrator’s decision at the beginning of the process.
Arbitration is a bit like the court system, but stripped down. It’s often faster, less expensive, and less complex than a lawsuit, which is why many companies favor it. It’s still a common and legitimate way for consumers to seek justice when they’ve been wronged by any company, big or small.
One major advantage to choosing arbitration to try to get your refund is that you don’t have to do it alone.
FairShake works with the American Arbitration Association (AAA) to automate the process of filing consumer disputes. This makes it easier for you to start the arbitration process, helping you take the first step toward getting the refund (or other resolution) you deserve.
FairShake also has a ton of resources that can help you through the entire arbitration process and give you tips for getting justice when you go up against some of the companies consumers have disputes with all the time.
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