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Shoppers getting banned for too many returns

Secret database keeps track of what you return
Posted at 3:58 PM, Feb 08, 2018

Millions of Americans shopped this past Black Friday. Among the crowds of customers at Best Buy that night was Rob Trainor.

The next day, he says, he looked over his purchases and decided to return a couple of computer items.

But at the Best Buy return counter, he says, he ran into some issues.

"The first transaction got a warning. The next return was denied, and the clerk couldn't do anything about it," he said.

It appears he had been flagged as a serial returner, even though he had not even opened his purchases. 

He was stunned.

"These are items that were unopened, with receipts, that I had bought 24 hours earlier," Trainor said.

National database keeps records of your returns

A manager told him Best Buy could not do anything about it, and that he had to call a company called "The Retail Equation," which Trainor learned was a sort of credit bureau for returns.

The company provided him his report, which showed the problem: multiple Best Buy returns a year earlier.

"There was a return Dec. 6 of 2016, and again on Dec. 30 of 2016. And the ones I tried to make on Nov. 24 of 2017," he said, frustrated that returns from a 12 months earlier were now preventing him from making any more.

Stores ask for your driver's license when making a return for several reasons. It's not just to prevent theft, as most of us assume. It's also because in many case your name gets entered into a national system keeping track of your returns.

The Retail Equation of Irvine, California, then collects and holds that data, according to an explainer on its website.

While the company won't name clients, it says 12 of the top 50 US retailers subscribe to its service, and says its clients are in every major mall in American.

A recent USA Today report says clients include:

  • Best Buy
  • Home Depot
  • JCPenney
  • Victoria's Secret
  • Nike
  • Bath and Body Works
  • Sephora (according to several other news reports and online complaints)

Shoppers we spoke with like Chris Heit say it doesn't seem right.

"I feel if you want to return something and you have the receipt and it hasn't been worn you should be able to return it with no trouble," she said.

The Retail Equation told us it does not share customer profiles with other stores, which means that too many returns to JCPenney should not get you banned at Best Buy.

The company says its goal is to simply stop return fraud, which it says is a $10 billion problem annually. 

While it will not say how many returns will trigger a red flag on your name, consumer advocates warn you to be careful with returns everywhere.

Fashion blogger Megan Fenno says she now limits her clothing returns so she's not branded a serial returner.

"Stores are now trying to crack down on that type of return,"  she said.

Instead of buying clothes she may end up returning, she suggests "trying the clothes on in the store and maybe bringing along a pair of shoes if you want to see how a certain pair of pants go with shoes."

Trainor, however, remains unhappy knowing there's a national return database.

"It seems like it's very unfair because my contract, my purchase, was not with The Retail Equation. It was with Best Buy," he said.

We contacted Best Buy's corporate offices about Trainor's case. While it would not discuss his precise return history with us, or why he was flagged, it has now released the lock on his return file, so that he can finally return his unwanted Black Friday purchases. (See full Best Buy statement below)


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"Best Buy captures valid ID information on returns in order to prevent fraudulent returns and deter criminals who attempt to turn stolen goods that can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars into cash. This is a standard industry practice and we use an outside party to capture the information. We do not have visibility into the data as our vendor flags, only the returns that occur on a frequent basis.”

Bianca Jones

Best Buy Media Relations




Does the Verify Return Authorization System Share Consumer Data Among Retailers? No. Although sharing consumer data among retailers is well-established for practices such as check and charge authorization, the Verify system does not share consumer data among retailers when authorizing return transactions.

Lisa Mendenhall

The Retail Equation