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WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9 Call for Action)-- Yes, Virginia there may be a Santa Claus but there are no universal rules giving consumers the right to return merchandise. Whether it's shopping online or in a retail store, the right to return merchandise is determined by local laws and the policies of the merchant.

Is there a law that guarantees consumers the right to return items?

It all depends on the jurisdiction. Generally, there are no laws that specify you have the right to make a return. In fact, policies differ from store to store. While one might give a full refund, another may require you to accept another item or a store credit. Some stores have a no-return policy. Most jurisdictions require these polices be posted in plain view in the store.

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For online purchases, check the website return polices, they should be clearly stated and tell you whether there are restrictions on returning some items, as well as who pays the return shipping cost and the amount of time in which you have to return the merchandise. When giving a gift, it's a good idea to ask the merchant if there is a gift return slip that identifies the item but does not show the price. In an online purchase, there is usually an option to indicate the item is a gift.

Are there some items that can be difficult to return?

If the gift is a CD, computer software, or other items that come in a sealed wrapper, it can be difficult if not impossible to return these products if the wrapping is removed. One thing that often angers consumers is to find that while the merchant will accept the return they are hit with a restocking fee that may be 10 to 15% of the value of the item. If you are returning an item that has been marked down after the holidays and you don't have a gift receipt or the original receipt, usually you will be refunded the lower amount, no matter what the gift cost originally!

Is the return of stolen merchandise a big concern?

It is a huge concern because it will cost retailers an estimated $9.6 billion. In fact, because of the possibility of fraud some merchants are implementing a computer system to track returns. A survey by the National Retail Federation found that stolen merchandise has victimized 95.2% of retailers in one year. As a consequence some retailers are tightening their return policies. That's why it is so important to keep receipts for all your purchases.

For information on rules regarding returned merchandise go to:

Maryland Attorney General

Fairfax County: Retail Return Policy Information

DC Consumer Protection

Federal Trade Commission

Written by: Shirley Rooker, Director, WUSA9 Call for Action

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