A step-by-step guide to getting your money back

You should do at least 4 things before acting crazy

Everyone knows what it's like to get screwed.

Maybe you ordered something online that never showed up, or a dry cleaner lost your dress, or you bought something at the store, only to later discover a brown makeup stain on the collar that you know isn't yours.

When these things happen, you'll need to ask for your money back — a task that can seem as laborious and time-consuming as the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. Just finding the the customer service number on some websites can take as long as it took Frodo and the gang to wind their way out of The Shire.

To help you succeed on your adventure of demanding consumer justice, here are some tips:

Review the policy

It's no fun going back to Forever 21 to refund that leopard-print sweatshirt, only to find out they only do exchanges. But if the return policy is written on the receipt or plainly visible at the store, as it legally should be in most states, you probably won't be able to fight it.

If you can't easily find the policy, research the laws for your state. In New York, for example, you're entitled to an exchange or refund for any damaged or defective item that isn't marked "As Is." You're also entitled to a refund if the store doesn't have their policy properly posted.

Study up

Before going back to the store or calling customer service, load up a few sassy quotes. ("I'm contacting my attorney" does not count as a sassy quote — no one's going to believe you'll invest that kind of time and energy into getting $38 back from the dry cleaner.)

Instead, read the guidelines that the Dry Cleaning & Laundry Institute International, an industry trade organization, has drawn up for lost and damaged items. If a dress shirt is a year old, for example, a dry cleaner who goes by the guidelines should be prepared to pay you for 40 percent of the shirt.

So, "Do you follow the Dry Cleaning & Laundry Institute's guidelines?" is the type of question you'll want to have prepared before going in.

Research the industry trade organization that applies to your purchase, and read their guidelines. Check out the Federal Trade Commission's rules, too.

Gather your paperwork

If you're asking for a refund in person, chances are, the store will want a receipt. If you no longer have it, come with some other kind of paperwork like a credit card statement that will help them track the purchase. Help them help you, in other words.

Ask for a refund…nicely

This is usually harder on the phone than it is in person. After finding the customer service number, navigating the automated phone menu, and waiting on hold for what seems like weeks, you'll probably be ready to snap by the time you get a real human on the other end of the phone.

Don't do it. That customer service rep in New Delhi may have the power to refund your account immediately — you want him on your side.

The Federal Trade Commission suggests you "calmly and accurately explain the problem and what you would like them to do" — in other words, have a reasonable goal in mind. Also, "Keep a record of your conversations — who you spoke with and when, and what action they promised."

If he can't help you, don't immediately jump to "I'll report you to your manager!" He may simply not have the authority. Instead, ask to speak to a manager, and if you hit a wall with him or her, ask nicely for someone even higher up.

In some cases, the representative will ask you to fill out a complaint. If so, apply the same informed, clear, reasonable tactics to the complaint form that you did to the call.

Go a little nuts

If you can't get your money back by knowing the rules and talking to the guy in charge — and if your complaint is legitimate — it's okay to act a little crazy.

NextAvenue.com recommends taking the complaint to the top. Find corporate contacts on consumer advocacy sites like Elliot.org, or deduce a company's email format by "looking for a contact email in a press release on the firm’s site. Or you can put the exec’s name in common email formats such as firstname.lastname@company.com or firstletteroffirstname.lastname@company.com then see if one of those gets through." It's rare that you'll hear back, but if you're invested, it's worth a shot.

Ben Popken from NextAvenue.org also recommends you take the story to social media sites like Tumblr, "then send your blog link to sympathetic reporters, bloggers, Tweeters and websites. Most brands have Facebook and YouTube presences as well and you can post on those pages." If the story gets traction, he bets the company will "reach out to you to douse the fire."


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