Get What You Paid For: Dealing with Defective
or Non-Received Purchases and Services
Perhaps the oven you purchased broke right away. Perhaps the contractor you paid $3000 showed up the first week but then stopped coming. Perhaps a store will not honor the gift card you have. Whether it is purchasing an item that breaks right away, receiving something different than what you purchased, or receiving nothing at all, it can be frustrating to not get what you paid for. However, disappointment does not have to be the final result. By taking action you can often obtain a satisfactory resolution.
Talk to the seller
If you are unhappy with a good or service first talk to the seller. Many companies, in order to maintain a good reputation, are more than willing to replace defective products or give you the correct product if you were shipped the wrong item. Service providers may be willing to redo their defective work if you just ask. If you never received an item that was purchased on-line, through the mail, or over the phone let the company know this.
In contacting the seller you can first start by visiting the store, if applicable, or calling the customer service line. If the first person you speak to is not helpful you can ask to speak to his or her supervisor. If that is not effective you can try to send a letter. Sending a letter shows that you are serious about your complaint, and if you send the letter certified mail and keep a copy you also have documentation of your contact with the company. Keep the letter short and to the point, and be polite. Let the company know when you purchased the item or used the service, the nature of the defect, your desired result (such as a refund or a replacement item), and when you would like your complaint resolved by. Include copies of any documentation you have, such as receipts. You may be able to send the letter to a few places, depending on the company, such as the local store, the company’s headquarters, the company’s customer relations department, and the CEO.
Check your warranty
If an item becomes defective after normal use see if it is covered by a written warranty. Warranties do not just cover goods but can also cover service work, like car repairs. A warranty specifies what the seller or manufacturer (depending on who is offering the warranty) will do if the item breaks within a specific time frame. Some credit card companies also provide warranties, so if you purchased the item with your credit card you should check the policies of your company.
If you have a written warranty you should be able to have the product repaired for free. If it cannot be repaired you should be able to have it replaced. Spoken warranties have little legal value. If the seller promises you something ask for it to be put it in writing.
Most items, except for consumables, such as food, and products specifically sold “as is”, are covered by an implied warranty, even if there is no written warranty. There are two types of implied warranties. The first type is the warranty of merchantability. Under the warranty of merchantability an item is expected to perform what it is manufactured to do. For example, if the oven you just purchased does not heat food it would be covered by the warranty of merchantability, and it should be fixed. The second type is the warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. For example, if you buy a watch and the seller told you that you can wear it when scuba-diving that would be covered under this warranty. Of course, it could be hard for you to prove what the seller said if there is nothing in writing. In California an implied warranty lasts for as long as the written warranty on the product or one year if there is no written warranty.
Talk to the manufacturer
If you bought a defective product, and talking to the seller has not been effective, another option you have is to talk to the manufacturer of the product about replacing or refunding your purchase. In fact, if the seller is no longer selling the product you purchased they may require you to talk to the manufacturer. Similar to dealing with the seller, first you can start by calling the manufacturer, then sending a letter if that is not effective.
Issue a complaint with the Better Business Bureau
If talking to the seller or manufacturer is not effective consider contacting the better Business Bureau. The Better Business Bureau is a national organization, with local chapters throughout the country, that promotes ethical business practices. The Better Business Bureau has a complaint process in which you submit the complaint, and the Better Business Bureau provides the complaint to the company. While they are not required to do so, many companies will address complaints provided through the Better Business Bureau, since the BBB keeps a record of complaints against each company and if they were resolved. You can fill out a complaint form with the Better Business Bureau on their website at www.bbb.org or by calling your local Better Business Bureau. The number for the San Francisco Bay Area Better Business Bureau is 866-411-2221.
Talk to the credit card company
If you paid for the product or service with a credit card you may have additional recourse. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act you can dispute charges for goods or services that you did not receive. The law only applies to credit cards, not debit cards. You can also dispute unsatisfactory goods or services you did receive if the purchase was for more than $50, was made in your home state or within 100 miles of your current billing address, and you made a good faith effort to resolve the dispute with the seller first. You must notify the creditor, in writing, within 60 days of receiving the statement with the disputed purchase on it. Send the letter certified mail, to the address for billing inquiries and concerns. This address should appear on your statement. Do not send it to the payment address. The creditor has two billing cycles or 90 days, whichever is less, to investigate the charges. Either the creditor will confirm your claim and remove the charge or disagree, at which point you will have to pay the amount.
Contact a regulatory, licensing, or trade organization
Some industries, like the banking and the insurance industries, must follow certain laws that govern their conduct and have regulatory agencies you can complain to if they break a law. Similarly, some fields, such as doctors, lawyers, contractors, and mechanics, require providers to hold a license. If you let the licensing board know your complaint the provider will have to address it or he or she may lose his or her license. Many companies and service providers are members of trade organizations, which they will usually advertise in their stores or websites. Generally, trade organizations promote quality work in their fields and may offer a mediation process for those dissatisfied with their members.
Contact the media
Media outlets often see themselves as advocates for consumers and may be interested in your story if your dispute involves a larger amount of money. In fact, many outlets have regular columns or pieces dedicated to consumer disputes. Try contacting your local papers and television news stations. Often companies that ignored you before will take corrective action once they get negative publicity.
Contact government agencies
In general, if a company does not follow a law or engages in deceptive practices you can report them to the Federal Trade Commission or your state’s Attorney General’s office. The Federal Trade Commission can be reached at 877-382-4357 or you can also file a complaint directly on their website at www.ftc.gov. You can call California’s Attorney General’s office at 800-952-5225. If your complaint involves fraud committed through the mail, such as the seller misrepresenting an item that was shipped to you, the seller can be reported to the United States Postal Inspection Service. A complaint can be filed by calling 877-876-2455 or going to postalinspectors.uspis.gov. The Federal Trade Commission, Attorney General’s office, and United States Postal Inspection Service usually do not intervene in individual disputes. However, they will take action against companies that have a pattern of complaints.
If other options do not work you can sue the company or individual to get your money back. Suing costs money, which is why it is usually better to try other ways to resolve your dispute first, but it will force the seller to deal with you. If the amount you are owed is not large you can file a claim in small claims court. Small claims courts set a maximum amount that you can sue for, which varies from state to state. Many small claims courts do not allow attorneys, but even the ones that allow it do not required you to have an attorney. If you win a judgment is entered against the company. Ideally you will get paid after you get a judgment, but if not you can go back to court for further action. For example, the company or individual’s bank account can be levied, or assets can be seized. If what you are suing for is above the amount allowed small claim courts you will have to file a civil lawsuit in municipal court. In this court it is recommended that you have a lawyer. A lawyer may charge an hourly fee or waive an upfront fee for a percentage of the amount you are awarded, if you win.