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Did You Know? Retailers May Be Tracking Your Merchandise Returns

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Best Buy store front with receipt

Retailers are watching you.

Did you know that return fraud and abuse costs U.S. retailers over $17 billion every year? Because of this, many retailers, including CVS, Best Buy, The Home Depot, and others, have started discreetly tracking customer returns, with hopes of halting shoppers who are suspected of abusing their return policies.

To keep tabs on customer returns, these retailers have turned to a third-party company, The Retail Equation (TRE), that analyzes the store’s sales data and keeps a database of customer returns, flagging potentially abusive shoppers. Customers who are flagged may be prevented from making future returns at that particular retailer.

While TRE’s system may be helpful at preventing return fraud and abuse, many shoppers are not aware of this tracking system.

In fact, if you’ve ever been required to show a driver’s license when making a return, it may be because they are partnered with The Retail Equation and use their tracking software. TRE uses this personal information (typically, this includes your identification number, name, address, date of birth, and expiration date) to track and monitor your return habits. Then stores this data in their state-of-the-art data center, which is located somewhere in the U.S.

Best Buy receipt – ID required

If you make a lot of returns OR have ever been denied a return at your favorite retailer, you may be interested in reading this email I received from a Hip2Save reader…

“I frequently purchase items and will not touch them for a period of time, just in case I find a better deal. I purchased an Instax camera via a sale posted on Hip2Save for $39.99 on February 8th.

 

On February 22nd, I went to Best Buy to return another (unrelated) purchase – smart light bulbs that I was not aware needed a Philips “bridge” in order to be used (I did not have this and did not want to buy it).

 

On February 25th, I went to return the Instax Camera because I decided instead to buy the Instax Smartphone printer. The printer is more expensive but more convenient as you do not have to carry the bulky camera around all day. My Best Buy receipt and purchase history indicates that I needed to return the camera by February 26th, so I made a trip to the store today after work to process the camera return. Towards the end of my transaction, I was advised that my return was DENIED.

 

Apparently, several retailers are working with a company called “The Retail Equation.” This company tracks your returns and has the ability to “block” you from returning for a year when they determine that you have returned too much. This is an assumption that Best Buy made, no one was able to actually confirm for me the formula that determines when you are blocked. In order to get a number to call “The Retail Equation”, I was forced to “Accept” and sign a screen at Best Buy that said my return is denied. Upon contacting Retail Equation, I was advised that there is no override that they can do, that they will send me a record of my returns.

 

Here is my problem. The return history will not be incorrect. I return a lot. However, I also purchase a lot and all of my returns are well within the company’s WRITTEN return policy on my receipt. All of my purchases are made on my Best Buy card which I have had for several years, so they can all be tracked as valid purchases/returns.

 

If I had made a more expensive purchase (TV, iPad, etc) and then attempted to return as I was advised I can and had been denied, this could have been a devastating waste of money. I would suggest that customers who have experienced this keep their receipts in case a class action lawsuit results.”


Shopping bags

So what exactly is The Retail Equation?

The Retail Equation (TRE) has been in business since 1999 to help retailers deliver a better customer shopping experience, while preventing retail fraud/abuse and protecting the bottom line. The company has a variety of technology solutions used by top-tier retailers across North America.

The most common is its Return Authorization, which uses statistical modeling and analytics to detect fraudulent and abusive behavior when returns are processed at retailers’ return counters. TRE’s software also helps retailers reward good customers with incentives at the point of sale or return.


best buy insignia speaker

What retailers use TRE Return Authorization?

Unfortunately, The Retail Equation does not disclose client names due to contractual agreements. Retailers using the TRE service may post signs to inform consumers of their use of the technology, and it may be mentioned on the back of the receipt that the technology is used and that an ID is required for returns.

However, rumor has it that more than 27,000 stores use The Retail Equation’s services, including big retailers like Best Buy, CVS, JCPenney, Victoria’s Secret, Home Depot, and Nike – just to name a few.


nike receipt with return information

Why would I be denied a return?

According to TRE, the system is designed to identify fraudulent or abusive behaviors that are not typical of 99% of consumers. The one percent of consumers who get warned or denied exhibit return behaviors that mimic fraud or abuse or exhibit habits that are inconsistent with the retailer’s return policy.

Please note, however, the refusal of a return does not mean the return is necessarily fraudulent or abusive; it only means that the consumer’s return history is similar to patterns often associated with such behavior.

Refused returns generally fall into two categories:

  • Returns that break that retailer’s basic return policy (such as a return without a receipt, a return after the allowed return period, a return on a non-returnable item, or multiple returns beyond the quantity of returns allowed by the retailer within a given period).
  • Returns that may indicate return fraud or abuse (for example, returning items after removing pieces of that item).

Collin carrying shopping bags

How can I get a copy of my Return Activity Report?

Consumers can contact TRE by sending an e-mail to: ReturnActivityReport@TheRetailEquation.com or a letter to:

The Retail Equation
P.O. Box 51373
Irvine, CA 92619-1373

Requests should include the consumer’s name and a phone number where he/she can be contacted. When TRE calls, the company will ask for the consumer’s driver’s license number and state, to enable a database search. TRE representatives prefer to call consumers to avoid sending personal information via e-mail or mail.


Sooo, not only do we have a CLV score that represents how “valuable” we are as a customer to a business, but now we also have a “return profile” that includes information about our merchandise returns to select retailers.

Do you think this enhanced tracking will prevent return fraud?


The end of retail? See which 15 stores have filed for Bankruptcy.

Join The Discussion

Comments 153

  1. Tracey

    It seems like TRE would be better off (as would consumers) to factor in the ratio of purchases to returns (or amounts spent/returned). If you buy 100 items from Target in a 3 month period and return 9, that’s not many, but if you buy 10 and return 9, maybe there is a pattern…
    I don’t make many returns but I don’t want to be banned for making one too many even when I have my receipts. Don’t they realize that people (ok, women! haha) change their mind about stuff?!!

    • sara

      I disagree, if I return 100 out of 100 items with a receipt, within the timeframe, and in the condition indicated in the policy then that should be honored in my opinion. The policy should clearly state otherwise that for instance they will return a max of 10% items purchased. They don’t of course because stating the truth will cause them to lose customers.

    • jlg

      That’s exactly what they do at home Depot. Different stores probably have different plans of service with the retail equation. Each stores equation is probably unique & can get quite complex, or stores can choose to have generic “protection” if that makes sense.

    • Ashley

      If you are returning perfectly good items with your receipt, you are not the problem and you won’t be banned. This is to cut down on people who are returning without a receipt, or consistently returning something that can’t be resold.

    • Nancy

      Except that if you buy online, or in store, knowing there is a chance of return, and nothing fits, you end up returning 9/10 items legitimately.

      Getting this slap in the face for being prudent about returning instead of throwing money away is ridiculously insulting

  2. Nel

    This could easily happen to us! We do a lot of home improvements but live 40 min from Menards/Home Depot so we often buy extra or 2 options if we aren’t sure how much or what we need and return on the next trip to town. That would stink!

  3. Carrie

    Best Buy has always been bad with customer service and returns, along with toys r us and Macy’s. I stopped shopping at those stores many years ago after I was unable to return with a receipt. I don’t shop at stores that don’t provide good customer service to their loyal customers.

  4. Ramona StClair

    If, as a paying customer, I have abided by the store’s stated policies (receipt in hand, packaging intact, etc.), they have no legal right to reject a return. Given that over 57 retailers have gone bankrupt since 2015, a smart retailer would be better off putting up huge signs, “We Accept Returns With A Smile”. Those retailers using TRE and/or CLV may wind up being very sorry for buying into this practice — and out of business — and they will have deserved it.

    • sara

      Me too but a lot of stores’ policies also state they can refuse a return for any reason. That’s their blanket rationalization when this ambiguous software denies a return.

  5. Anne

    Y’all are this upset about return tracking, just wait until you hear what Facebook knows about you! LOL Unless you live off the grid, you can go ahead and assume anything related to your consumer behavior is being tracked. It’s old news. We’ve moved past tracking for marketing. The big legal and ethical question now is how all this data about you could be used by insurance companies.

    • Another Shelly

      This is exactly why I’m not on Facebook or any other social media.

      • Ramona StClair

        Nor am I on any social media. Cheaters can still wiggle their way into your private spaces by buying info from credit card companies, emails, etc., so real privacy doesn’t exist anymore. But being on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Match.com, etc., is an invitation to electronic home invasion.

      • Kyuu

        Bold of you to assume Facebook doesn’t have a tracking profile for you just because you don’t have an account. Do a search for Facebook shadow accounts to get a sense of how much data they have on people who don’t engage with their service. Even if you don’t directly interact, if you use the web, you’re engaging with advertisers who might use their tracking services

        • Another Shelly

          “Bold” of me? You do have the right to decline this kind of tracking. Stop acting helpless.

          • ladyashiri

            Another Shelley, I completely understand that you don’t like the tracking, but if you have any friends or contacts on Facebook, Facebook puts together as much information as possible about you. Additionally, by actions such as logging into this site or other sites also track information about you or use “cookies”, and Facebook buys that information (in aggregate, for lots of people).
            http://theconversation.com/shadow-profiles-facebook-knows-about-you-even-if-youre-not-on-facebook-94804

  6. fran

    I work at a store that uses this but we only track nonreciept returns.

  7. E

    I got a “warning” that I wouldn’t be able to return anything to TRU for 90 days because I had exceeded the number or non-receipt returns. I have kids and they constantly are given toys and other gifts that we don’t need or already have similar things of. Target has denied me returns too, the last time I did a non-receipt return they said “go pick out something in the toy department for X price to do an even exchange”. I wasted about 15 minutes looking around the toy department and brought the toy back home. I had my mom return it another day and they accepted her return no problem. I also DO use mostly cash for my purchases and don’t always save receipts. Oh, and target also does not allow non-receipted returns for online-only items. IE, if it’s a gift that someone bought you from target.com you can’t exchange it unless you have the receipt. Speaking of, I have a return to make at target tomorrow, hah, but I saved my receipt this time. Also, diaper return policies are weird, i had to exchange for the next size up and they had me find a pack of diapers the same exact price (of course there were none that exact price) in order to exchange them (with a receipt, too!) at Walmart. Sometimes I think it’s just arbitrary what the salesperson says with regards to returns.

    • jlg

      You are correct. I recently sold an item on eBay that Target wouldn’t return because the online item isn’t in their in store system. I think I got more than I paid for it on eBay too, so I was pleasantly surprised

  8. Denice Laws

    If a retailer starts arbitrarily denying returns, I’ll be limiting the $$$ I spend at that store.

  9. Manny

    Fisrst time Best Buy gave a hassle to retun a item with areceipt and within 30 days of purchase , i quit their store
    As simple as that Lol

  10. Bb

    Typically companies are only concerned with returns WITHOUT a receipt. When someone returns items with no receipt, no credit card to use for looking up a receipt or no store rewards number to look-up the receipt, they usually provide an ID that is used to track their returns to this specific company. Unfortunately, there are literal theft rings where people work in groups to steal high-priced items from retailers, return them, get a return card and sell it for cash. This system helps deter them from being able to process more than “X” amount of returns at a specific company. Very odd that Best Buy is using this system with customers who do legitimate returns with a receipt.

    • DKR

      So because of thieves and criminals all of us are penalized? Nice. Legitimate returns with a receipt should supersede any other situation and be handled accordingly.

  11. Marie

    I understand that retailers are trying to protect themselves, but I resent being treated like a crook on the rare occasion I need to return something with a receipt and I am asked for my ID. I tend not to shop with those retailers again. Some of those retailers are now filing for bankruptcy and closing. I’m not surprised, because if you treat good customers poorly you lose them.

  12. Myrah

    I had a huge problem at CVS in January. I told the cashier to use ALL my ECBs. I saw her press the buttons because she turns her monitor to show me what she is doing. She gave the total which was off by almost $15 and I questioned it but I paid anyway. After looking at my receipt, I noticed $15 in ECBs didn’t come off. It was still on my app. I told her they didn’t come off and normally I would just use them the next time but they were expiring the next day. She did a whole refund and then rang up my transaction again (which was about $80 before any coupons). In February I had to do a return for a $3 item, they asked for my license which I thought was weird. Last week, I purchased the Progresso organic soup that was on sale. The cashier rang up 4 instead instead of 3. I did notice after I paid (I was still in the store). So he went to refund me the 1 can and I was denied. The manager just gave me $1.29 in cash since it wasn’t my fault. I guess CVS is definitely using this system which stinks because I shouldn’t have been flagged for something that wasn’t my fault.

    • Garfield

      Every time they ask for ID even if you have a receipt is the clue that they track you.

    • TM

      I feel your pain, I got denied a return, called the number and was told I could not return for 6 months and I wanted to know why and they would only say that it was my return pattern. I told them it is not right they don’t do exchanges that they do return and rebuy but they did not care. So I haven’t tried to return since my 6 mos was up but I know that I make sure everything is correct now and that I don’t buy anything I don’t want or will change my mind. I am at the point I would like to use up my extracare bucks I have and not shop there for awhile.

      • TM

        This was CVS

  13. Amber

    Class action lawsuit waiting to happen. Lawyers will enjoy taking this practice down. How dare retailers share our private shopping history without consent. Privacy is long lost. Bring back the ma and pop shops.

  14. Garfield

    I don’t know why every time this warning pops up (for years) they keep on mentioning Best Buy. Yes BB was the worst to ban people but for years they haven’t been using any third party company. I know because they stopped asking for IDs. When that happened I asked the CS and they told me that they are no longer using a company to track the returns. If a store asks for your ID and scans it when you return with receipt you should know that they track you. Once you realize they track you, you should be more careful what you are purchasing. I personally try not to shop at places like that. Last time that happened was years ago at TRU and after they asked me for my ID I told them that I am not shopping there anymore because of that and I never did! If people vote with their wallets there will be no companies like that.

  15. MrsA

    I’ve noticed Bath & Body Works does this too. I don’t shop there regularly except at Christmas time for gifts. I wanted to return 3 bottles of lotion since I ended up not needing that many and the cashier asked for my driver’s icense. I asked why and she said they limit the number of returns. Has anyone else ever encountered this?

    • TM

      My BBW used to do both non receipt and receipt through the TRE machine. I don’t know if they are doing both receipt and non receipt through the register now as they no longer use the TRE machine. I stopped shopping there as much as I used to partly because of this and because I had to much of their stuff that I needed to use up.

  16. Adam

    BB was always mentioned because they were the biggest client of TRE. They may not be anymore after all the complaints, but they were for a while. B/c of a return at Home Depot, I was denied a return later that year at BB.

  17. CC

    I used to work at a clothing retailer in HS and you would not believe the things ppl tried to return (and some argued their way to a return- no one tried their BS returns with me, but I knew of poor employees who were badgered into returning against policy; one time someone returned Walmart jeans to the store (not Walmart- I think the cheapest jeans we had were $50), without tags, no receipt, and probably 10 years old 🙄 the girl at the register cried bc the woman was so rude-she should’ve called security but instead gave in to giving the woman merchandise credit- also we had a makeup counter and people would return gross used makeup- which can’t be resold obviously 🙄)… I think the stores should be more worried about these kind of ppl rather than just returns in general… but I can understand for more expensive products asking for ID as people in the past have done things like purchased an iPad and then replaced the iPad with a fake iPad or weights and resealed the box with a machine they had and returned the box to the store (so they’ve stolen the iPad and an unsuspecting customer gets screwed over)

  18. Luz

    Uh. Dur, people. What did you think they were using technology for? LOL. “Rewards” programs are slick ways of tracking. iPhones are data collection devices that we pay to carry around with us, having no idea who is buying/using our most detailed and personal information. Retailers are only one of the many entities collecting and utilizing the information we volunteer every day.

    • JP

      A few years ago at a well known retail store, I saw a man returning like 20 of those expensive toothbrush replacement heads using several receipts.
      Looked a bit a bit fishy to me, returning so many of the same type item.

  19. TM

    I am not crazy about them using TRE when I have a receipt. But with the way technology is and people being able to counterfeit so many things, which receipts are probably on the list, I can understand why they have to do keep track of receipt and non receipt returns. It is sad that those that are legit are being punished by those that are not.

  20. Heather

    If they are denying customers on that basis, they better get better at training their staff on ringing customers up and which code they use for returns. I have had to do returns because the cashier made a mistake so then when you go over to customer service they return it as no receipt but I have had the receipt. I literally walked 10 steps from the cashier to customer service!!

    • TiredofBeingRippedOff

      Re Heather’s comment: Excellent point! I had completely forgotten about that. If an item rings up wrong at Target, or if a Target cartwheel doesn’t work, the cashier always says there’s nothing they can do and sends you to customer service to basically do a return.. where I’m guessing the TRE strikes start adding up.

  21. Jan

    CVS seems to not apply coupons on my cvs app or give correct extra bucks. One time checker got made saying can’t do anything if it doesn’t come off or I could lose my job according to corporate. He finally priced adjusted several items to get close to what I was suppose to pay. He said next time go to Walgreens or rite aid.

  22. Astra trohan

    I rarely ever return anything anywhere & it was quite a shock when i went t return a couple pairs of jeans to The Gap and was ( rudely) denied i was told to contact retail equation for my report which i literally just did im wondering has any one else gone through this.?

  23. Pat

    I received a report of returns from TJ Maxx and to my HUGE surprise, it included a list of ALL returns I have ever made, including those with receipts. I am confused as to how returns WITH receipts are being tracked when no ID was shown. That is very scary. How are they getting my information if all they have is my name and the last 4 digits of a credit card number? This is big brother watching for sure. I don’t like it and won’t be shopping there any longer.

    • Chelsea

      Curious, did you receive your report from “The Retail Equation”? I have not seen TJX companies on any lists of stores using The Retail Equation.

  24. Nancy Lamb

    I just got ‘warned’ at Bed Bath and Beyond. We purchased a $500 item and at that time their policy was to return if it breaks at any time. It is two years later and the item is not working so we brought it to the store with the receipt. The manager said we were grandfathered in. The clerk said it was in really good shape, and obviously we took care of it. We exchanged for the same item- which is an exchange in kind and not a real return.

    Their process is to run it as a return and then create a new charge and receipt.

    All was well until they processed my debit card.

    The weird thing is I have not purchased or returned anything at BBY in maybe 8 months.
    The store says that this TRE database is a national database and it maters NOT which retailer. It tracks every store that pays to play this game.

    A couple months ago I bought shoes at a small retail store. They didn’t work out so I returned them within the policy time frame as I was told to do. My return was denied by debit card and the manager just stood there smiling and saying that he could give me cash or apply the refund to a credit card but not the debit card I made the purchase with.

    It was the only time I had purchased from them.

    And yes I have purchased clothes online and returned things that did not fit.
    It has happened a lot lately due to weight loss.

    Whatever is going on, I will call TRE and I will get that report because I am not shopping at any more stores that disrespect me in this way.

    Every purchase I make is made with the knowledge of the return policy because the store has a return policy.

    REI has a 1 year return policy and as part of their sales pitch they say they want us to be happy so please return if it doesn’t work out. Especially in their shoe department! They brag about the one year policy.

    Home Depot’s 90 day return policy came in handy when I bought a lawn mower battery. $145 got me the battery online but when the mower wheels fell apart and were irreplaceable, I was able to return the like new battery. Within 90 days !

    I feel like the stores are treating me like a criminal if they deny my legitimate return.
    This will be the death of retail. The stores say one thing but then pay for a service that discredits honest buyers who are often the most loyal customers.

  25. Pat

    There are lawsuits waiting to happen. The return information on the back of a store receipt is a contract. The store offered the deal and we accepted it. If my reutrn is ever denied, I will sue them. After all, when I purchased the item, TRE was not part of the agreement and I knew nothing about them. Therefore, they have no right to void their agreement based on some data from a 3rd party. If stores want to make returns contingent on some 3rd party data, then the customer needs to be told this at time of purchase.

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