Deseret Morning News: Retailers say 'no' to serial exchangers
Technology helps stores crack down on fraudulent returns but irks some consumers
By Stephanie Kang
The Wall Street Journal
As the holiday shopping season begins, retailers are deploying new technology designed to crack down on one of the industry's biggest frustrations—customers who abuse return and exchange policies.
Retailers such as Guess Inc., Staples Inc., Sports Authority Inc. and Limited Brands Inc. are among those using software called Verify-1, a product of Return Exchange, based in Irvine, Calif. The closely held company helps retailers decide whether to deny returns or exchanges using a program that monitors a shopper's track record of bringing items back.
Such tactics are raising the ire of shoppers and privacy-rights groups who say the new technology is often an unnecessary and intrusive violation of consumer rights.
Retailers say they are on the lookout for various forms of fraud, including "serial wardrobers" who buy an outfit, wear it once or twice and return it; shoplifters who return stolen merchandise; employees who steal items and return them for cash; price switchers, who change price tags on items, then return one item for the higher amount; and shoppers who use fake or old receipts when making a return.
Return Exchange's Verify-1 system works like this: When a customer wants to return an item, the sales clerk asks for his or her driver's license or other form of state-issued identification, and swipes it into a machine much like those used to make credit card or ATM purchases. The shopper's name, address and birthdate is logged into a database. The program records details about the transaction, such as the store number, the amount of the return, the date, time and item description.
All that information is stored on Return Exchange's server in Santa Ana, Calif. Most transactions end there. But if a customer's "return behavior" seems out of the ordinary, the transaction is rejected and the consumer is given a receipt that instructs him or her to call the company's toll-free number for a copy of a report detailing their return activity. Shoppers can also request that Return Exchange investigate the rejected return. The program keeps tallies of the type of transactions, the total amount of the returns and the number of exchanges.
The company says the data are available only to Return Exchange, the customer and executives at the retailer. Other personal information, such as a shopper's physical characteristics, is not recorded.
I remember when I worked at Kmart in the late 1980s to mid-90s and we used driver licenses to try to recognize fraudulent returns. We'd type the license number into the register system and it would track the total number of returns by a customer, eventually denying returns based on some sort of total-transactions criterion about which we never got details.
I only saw two returns get declined. In both cases, the customers were well known to us as serial-return problem children, but in neither case did we have anyone freak out at us about it. Usually the only freak-outs were customers whose credit cards were declined when they tried to make purchases, and they didn't understand how the electronic authorizations worked.
Thank God I'm long since out of retail.
(Except of course for this stint at the hospital gift shop. ::twitch::)