Returning an item for a refund (or exchange)?

Caveat Emptor: Retailers can steal your personal identifying information!

It happens, especially around the Christmas holiday season:  You purchase something at a retailer, only to find out that it doesn't work or it doesn't fit among other things.  You decide to return the item for a refund.  But before you do, here are a few pointers on returning items to a retailer for a refund.


This topic pertains to returning merchandise to a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer for a refund.  If you are returning something to an online retailer, the procedures are a little different - you may want to check your online retailer's website for their policies and instructions.


First thing you should do is check the retailer's return policy.  This can be found prominently posted inside the retailer's premises or it can be found on the retailer's website.  Retailer return policies on the web can usually be found by going to the retailer's website and clicking on their Customer Service link.  Be sure to note any fees for restocking that you may be charged; this is true with computer and electronics equipment.


Most importantly, be sure to bring your original sales receipt with you.  This will eliminate plenty of inconvenience when you return an item to a retailer.  But what if you do not have a receipt with you?  Nine times out of ten, the retailer will offer you a store credit in the form of a gift card, which you can use to purchase another item at the same retailer.  Again, check your retailer's return and exchange policy.


An alarming trend:  Retailers requiring your ID for returns


Unfortunately, more and more retailers - such as Best Buy, for example - are turning to requiring identification for returns. With the recent data breach incidents involving Target and The Home Depot, you should be concerned.


If an item is being returned without a receipt, then requiring an ID is justified as long as the information is not captured or stored somewhere.  Usually, the customer is asked to fill out a short form and any information collected is only for the retailer's records and no other.  But to require an ID for returns and at the same time capturing the information on the ID and entering it into a database, that's a recipe for identity theft in the making.


Retailers who require and capture ID for returns is nothing more than a retailer dabbling into your personal affairs.  You probably don't know this, but your ID information is being transmitted - often times without your knowledge or consent - by your retailer to a third party, and that third party turns out to be an Irvine, California based company called The Retail Equation.  How does a third party such as The Retail Equation have to do with your personal business?


You know what a credit report is and the big three credit reporting agencies that have a file on you:  Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.  You apply for an auto loan and your bank or credit union pulls your credit history file from one of the big three credit reporting agencies.  Basically it's the same thing with The Retail Equation but it is classified as a specialty consumer reporting agency in the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission as The Retail Equation keeps records of customers who have returned merchandise to retailers for a refund.


But how are records kept as far as retail returns are concerned?  The following will surprise you.


A retailer who is a member of The Retail Equation collects the customer's personal identifying data with the swipe of an identity document, such as a driver's license, at the point of return such as a retailer's customer service desk.  The information is transmitted to The Retail Equation and within seconds, the retailer gets a message to either approve or deny the return.  Exactly what criteria is used to approve or deny a return is unknown, but it is believed that there is some kind of algorithm - kept under top secret lock and key from the general public - that detects a customer's retail return habits.


As The Retail Equation claims on their website, the criteria as to whether a return should be approved or denied is based on the dollar amount of the return and purchase history.  Unfortunately, the way The Retail Equation has their retailer return system set up the potential for discrimination against a customer is high, even though age, national origin, gender or race is not taken into account.


In short, it's akin to having a criminal record against you - only this time, for stuff that you returned to a retailer for legitimate reasons.  All it takes is the swipe of a governmental issued ID, such as a driver's license.  If you're not in The Retail Equation's database, a dossier is started on you that leads to a lifetime of problems when you try to legitimately return an item to a retailer for a refund.


Why should you care if a retailer asks for ID for a return


Most importantly:  The potential for identity theft is high, particularly if your personal identifying information is turned over to a third party.


Remember back to the days when there was a major breach of customer information involving T.J. Maxx in 2007? And now the recent data breach incidents involving Target that happened in December 2013 and The Home Depot in September 2014? These incidents were major security incidents in which plenty of personally identifiable customer information - including credit card information - was leaked.  Now imagine one day when you turn on Bay News 9, 10 News (WTSP-TV) or even ABC Action News (WFTS-TV Channel 28) and a major breaking news story is reported: Major security breach involving The Retail Equation.


Sound scary?  It is.  For that reason, you have every right to safeguard your personal data including what is on your ID.


Got a Florida Driver License?  It is the worst identity document in the nation because it complies with Federal REAL ID requirements such as having your residential street address on it, which is a goldmine for stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators.  Worse yet, despite Federal laws that prohibit the practice the State of Florida has a routine habit of selling your name and residential street address information to third parties from driver license records.  Unless you are pulled over by a law enforcement officer or renting a car, guard that Florida Driver License with your life.


Also, if a retailer claims that requiring an ID for any return - as well as using your credit card at the register - helps deter identity theft, that statement is wrong.  Any retailer claiming the purpose of requiring ID to help deter identity theft is a false statement - after all, retail clerks have been implicated in identity theft cases as the perpetrators!


What to do if a retailer asks for ID for a return


The sure fire way to avoid surrendering your personal data to The Retail Equation:  Don't show your ID in the first place.  Ask to speak to someone in authority such as the general manager.


If ID is demanded as part of a return and the store manager won't budge, if you happen to have a United States Passport or a United States Passport Card, use it as ID.  Unlike a driver's license, passports and passport cards do not have your physical street address shown on them. The less information you give to The Retail Equation, the better.


If you do not have either a passport or passport card, I would strongly recommend getting a passport card. It is a wallet size card and, being a federal identity document, meets REAL ID benchmarks. Not only you can use it when you check in for a domestic airline flight or to enter a federal facility, you can show your passport card as ID if in the event a retailer asks you. Passport cards cost $30 and are good for ten (10) years; besides, if you move to a different state and you do not drive having a passport card beats having to go to a state DMV office and spending half a day trying to get a state issued non-driver identification card for your new state of residence.  And if you want to take a day trip across the land border into Mexico or Canada, you can do that with a passport card too!


If you have a post office box as a mailing address, use it to your benefit. If in the event a retailer requires a street address, give your work street address - not the street address where you live. Again, residential street addresses are a goldmine not only for dabbling store clerks but for stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators too.  This is very important, especially if you have a domestic violence restraining order against someone - store clerks can and do collect street address information and relay it somehow. In other words, all it takes is your name and residential street address information to fall into the wrong hands.

How to find out what The Retail Equation has on you


If in the event you attempt to return an item to a retailer and you were denied a return because of information obtained from The Retail Equation, you are entitled to a copy of your Return Activity Report.


This page over at The Retail Equation shows you how.  Click on the link at their Return Activity Report request page (it is an email link) and include your name and a telephone number (preferably a daytime telephone number where you can be reached).  A representative from The Retail Equation will call you and ask for your identifying information on the telephone rather than replying to you via email to help minimize the likelihood of identity theft.

Things to remember when you patronize a retail establishment


You found that item you always wanted, at a price that you can afford.  But before you go to pay for your item, be sure to stop by the retailer's customer service desk and ask them about their return policies.  A reputable retailer usually posts their return policy prominently in the customer service desk area as well as staff is available to answer any questions you may have.


Specifically, you should find out:


1.  Is a receipt required for a refund?


2.  If I am purchasing the item as a gift (especially a Christmas gift), can I get a gift receipt?  (Some retailers allow you to do this).


3.  If I do not have my receipt, can I get a store credit?


4.  What kind of personal information may be required of me when I return an item?


5.  How will my personal information be handled by the retailer when I return an item?  If your personal information will be reported to a third party such as The Retail Equation, think twice before buying anything from that retailer!


6.  Will I be required to show any governmental issued ID for a return?  Requiring an ID for a return should be raising a red flag for you if you purchase anything from that retailer, as your personal information may be transmitted to The Retail Equation if you return anything.


And most importantly...


Guard that Florida driver license (or your driver license from your home state) with your life.  NEVER, NEVER surrender your driver license or its information to a retailer's sales clerk if asked - should problems arise, ask to speak to the general manager of the retailer.  Besides, a Florida driver license has way too much personal information such as where you live, which I feel is none of your retailer's business.


A final note:  A message to The Retail Equation in Irvine, California


Our personal information as contained on our governmentally issued ID (such as a driver license) is, for all intents and purposes, NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!!!


Related topic you should read here at


Florida's new driver license requirements - this was published shortly after Florida's driver license laws were changed in 2010 to comply with the Federal REAL ID law.  If you care about your privacy then please read that topic.