Stores can make just about any return policy they want, as long as they post the policy in a place that’s easy and accessible for consumers to read.
In New Jersey, the return policy must inform consumers of “any other terms or conditions which must be met in order for you to receive a refund.”
Which brings us to Susan Harper’s trip to Toys”R”Us in Paramus to purchase some holiday toys for her 8-year-old son.
At the crowded checkout line, Harper said, she placed the merchandise on the belt and her pocketbook on the counter. She said she looked to see if there were any signs about a return policy.
“I picked up my pocketbook and then saw scratched plastic with some writing under it, which I could barely read and had to move along because of the long holiday line,” she said.
With the hustle and bustle, she didn’t read the full policy. But even if she had, she wouldn’t have known that Toys”R”Us insists on scanning driver’s licenses when a customer makes a return.
Harper was faced with that surprise when she returned to the store with her son to bring back a defective toy car.
Harper gave over the receipt, and she said she was asked for her identification.
She told the clerk she was happy to provide her ID, but she didn’t want it to be scanned.
Harper said she asked the clerk, and later, the manager, what the store does with the information. The reply was that they “use it to track returns,” Harper said.
“I responded that they may type in my name, address, zip, but I was not giving them my driver’s license to scan,” Harper said. “One of the associates explained that the associates were unable to enter the info manually in the system.”
Harper asked what happens if a customer doesn’t have a driver’s license. The store reps said they could present a passport instead, otherwise, they can’t make a return.
“I left the store with the defective toy car and one unhappy child,” Harper said.
Toys”R”Us discussed with us its return policy and why it requires an ID, which is clearly posted, but it wouldn’t say specifically whether or not the policy says the ID will be scanned. More on that in a moment.
THE FINE PRINT OF RETURN POLICIES
Harper started to research exactly what the return policy said.
“They do not put you on notice that they require a scan,” Harper said. “They do state that returns ‘require a valid ID,’ however, nowhere does it state on their receipt or in their store that they require a scan of your personal ID.
“Moreover, they provide consumers with zero information about what they do with your info and how it is stored,” Harper said. “This is misleading to the consumer, especially in a day when we all confront identity theft.”
Before the holidays, we reminded consumers to be aware of return policies that require the scan of a driver’s license or other identification. Some retailers do the scans in conjunction with The Retail Equation (TRE), a California-based company that tracks returns so merchants can watch out for so-called “serial returners.”
That column is what led Harper to Bamboozled.
We took a closer look at the return policy, and Harper is correct.
In the store, there is a return policy posted. It’s not at eye-level, but on the counter where a consumer would pay for merchandise.
It says: “Why you need to provide a photo ID: The information from your ID will be retained in a company-wide database of return activity that Toys”R”Us and its affiliates use to authorize returns.”
Online, the return policy states: “As we strive to offer a liberal and fair return policy for our customers, while preventing return fraud, we require you to present one of the following: Valid Driver’s License; State Identification from US, US Territories, Canada, or Mexico; Military ID; Passport. The information from your ID will be retained in a database of return activity that Toys”R”Us and its affiliates use to authorize returns.”
It then offers a link to The Retail Equation website for more information.
We’d venture to guess that few customers while shopping in the store will use their mobile devices to find the return policy online, and further, click to learn what The Retail Equation says about how scanned information is used and protected.
We asked Toys”R”Us if the company did post somewhere about IDs being scanned.
Toys”R”Us was quick to respond, but it didn’t really answer the question.
Spokeswoman Alyssa Peera explained in an email that the company uses The Retail Equation to try to identify those who engage in fraudulent returns.
“To utilize this service, we collect information from a source of official identification,” Peera said. “As you might expect, those consumers who commit return fraud are not always honest about their identity, so many retailers use this process for in-store returns.”
She said the company website provides a link for customers who have concerns about how their personal information is secured.
We asked again, specifically, if the policy says anything about a scan.
Peera responded with the text from the return policy on the website, which doesn’t specifically mention IDs will be scanned.
To make sure we had it right, we asked one more time: “So nothing specifically says the license is scanned?”
We didn’t receive a response.
WHY THIS ALL MATTERS
Maybe you think we’re being nit-picky, but when it comes to your private information, you should be nit-picky.
Identity theft is a tremendous problem.
An estimated 17.6 million people — or about 7 percent of U.S. residents — were victims of identity theft in 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
A Javelin Strategy & Research study found that $16 billion was stolen from 12.7 million U.S. consumers in 2014.
There was a new identity fraud victim every two seconds in 2014, the study said.
If consumers want to protect themselves, they need to decide when, and how often, they’re willing to expose their private information.
Including a scan of your driver’s license.
We’re not saying businesses shouldn’t do the scans. We get that they need to protect themselves.
The Retail Equation says return fraud and abuse costs businesses $10.8 billion every year. If scanning identification will help bring that number down, we understand the strategy.
But at the same time, consumers should worry about who has their information and what could happen if it gets out — something not out of the realm of possibility with any retailer. In 2015, there were 780 data breaches that exposed nearly 178 million records, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
With numbers like that — no matter what security measures are taken — data breaches are a real concern.
We’re certainly not suggesting that Toys”R”Us or The Retail Equation are any more vulnerable than other companies.
But while you can’t control data breaches, you can control who has your information.
It’s about disclosure and choice, especially because we in New Jersey don’t know everything that’s on our driver’s license bar codes, despite Bamboozled’s attempts to find out.
Companies should post with their return policies whether or not a customer’s ID must be scanned for a return.
Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works make the disclosure online. Other companies, including Home Depot and Best Buy, don’t.
With transparency from retailers, consumers can make an educated decision. If they’re not willing to have their IDs scanned, they can choose to shop elsewhere.
Harper said she understands the company has to protect itself from fraud, but the scan should be part of the return policy.
She says she plans to shop elsewhere.
“The privacy of my personal information in this hacking age is more important than merchandise sold by Toys”R”Us and the company’s corporate return tracking objectives, which can be and should be achieved in less intrusive ways,” she said.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.