It only takes a few seconds for the average credit card transaction to process. If you’re paying by cash, the time it takes for money to exchange hands is even faster.
But getting money back? Ah, that’s another matter.
A recent study found that online merchants take their time – days, and sometimes weeks — to refund your money. The study, conducted during the holidays by StellaService, found that dot-coms like Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and LLBean.com typically refunded a purchase within about four days. Dell.com, on the other hand, took two weeks and one business, Avon.com, didn’t return the money at all by the time the research was published in late December.
I’ve always wondered how businesses can get away with that: Take the money quickly and return it slowly. Or never. Oh yeah, that happens more often than you’d think, which is why I have a job as a consumer advocate.
The short answer is, because they can. There are few, if any, laws that require a prompt refund to be issued when merchandise is returned. Some stores will insist on giving you credit instead of returning your money, which only benefits them. Store credit can go unredeemed, particularly when you’re so upset that you vow to never darken the door of the business again. There’s only one winner in that game and it isn’t you.
In other words, merchants return our money slowly because we let them but we shouldn’t.
Here are a few secrets to getting a speedy refund.
Normally, a merchant will refund your purchase via the payment method you used. In other words, if you paid by credit card, you’ll be refunded by credit card. But that may not be the fastest way to your refund (indeed, it’s not unusual to have to wait two to three credit card billing cycles for your money). See if they can refund the purchase in cash or by another method, like PayPal.
Submit your request in writing and get a receipt.
I’m always on my soapbox about the importance of paperwork but it’s never more critical than in this situation. Get everything in writing, because if the money doesn’t come through, that email or receipt can be successfully used in a credit-card dispute. The correspondence can also be used as a friendly reminder, forwarded to a manager, informing them that you’re still waiting for your money.
Know the code.
True story: When I worked in corporate America many years ago, I was in charge of approving invoices for my department. Some of my more sophisticated contractors would write “Net 30” on their invoices. That tells the accounting department to expedite the payment and take care of it within 30 days of receipt. I’ve seen businesses take as long as 90 days to process a refund. Warning: don’t write something random on a refund request, hoping it will make your money come back faster. Make sure you get the code from an employee, otherwise it will just confuse the accounts-payable folks.
Learn the rules.
Some businesses have refund policies that may, or may not, be followed when you ask for your money back. Likewise, there are laws (precious few, as I’ve already mentioned) that might benefit you. For example, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to refund a ticket within a week when you pay by credit card. Businesses assume you won’t pay attention to these rules and will patiently wait with the rest of their customers.
You shouldn’t have to pester a company for a refund, but the sad fact is that a lot of corporations turn their refund delays into a business. That’s right, they treat your money like a short-term loan and take their sweet time sending your hard-earned cash back to you. No, they’d never admit it, but ask yourself: Whom is the delay helping: You or the company? That’s right, it’s definitely not you. The only way to make sure your money isn’t turned into an interest-free loan is to demand it back at regular intervals when it doesn’t show up in your account.
I hate to break it to you, but when it comes to refunds, businesses would really rather take the product back and keep your money. But they can’t have it both ways. You’re entitled to a speedy refund, and these simple strategies will help you get it.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.