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Seeking Refunds With Online Retailers

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By Ellen Roseman

Are you an online shopper? E-commerce makes it possible to purchase things you need and can’t buy in person when stores are locked down in the pandemic.

But while online shopping can be a lifesaver, it can lead to expensive errors when you order from a company you don’t know or trust. What if the merchandise is defective or unsuitable? Who covers the cost of return shipping? Will you get your money back?

The refund policies posted at a company’s website may be exaggerated or untrue. And you may find yourself locked out when you try to complain, never getting replies to your calls and emails. It’s hard to seek redress when an online retailer is far from where you live and has no bricks-and-mortar outlets. You can’t just drop into a local store, such as The Bay or Walmart, ask to speak to the manager and talk about your intention to boycott after years of loyalty.

I have a story to tell about an online purchase that went dreadfully wrong, leaving the customer out of pocket by almost $1,000. And I have tips about protecting yourself before ordering from a virtual store and handing over your credit card information.

But first, let me introduce myself.

For 20 years, I wrote a consumer column in the Toronto Star. I advocated for readers who were treated badly by large companies and helped them connect to the decision makers who could resolve their problems. When I left the Star in 2019, I didn’t plan to keep doing this work (unpaid). But I continued to hear from customers desperate to recover their money, feeling they had no other option than going to the media.

Deborah Cherry, for example, is a retired high school teacher in Toronto. She has osteoporosis and suffered a fall in 2017 that resulted in a compression fracture of the spine. “Outdoor winter walking became a serious consideration,” she told me. “So, exactly one year ago, I went online to look for the safest pair of winter boots I could find. Then I discovered the Denali boots with retractable spikes that looked very promising.” She spoke to CEO Darrell Bachmann, who appeared on CBC Dragons’ Den in 2009 and received a $1 million offer for a share of his B.C. firm, Kickspike Enterprises. Getting start-up capital from all five dragons gave her the confidence to go ahead. But in a later Dragons’ Den episode—as I learned in a Google search—the promised investment fell through after the due diligence process. Bachmann stopped making golf shoes and switched to winter boots with the same type of retractable cleats that could be activated by a kick.

Cherry ordered two pairs of Denali boots in different sizes after Bachman agreed in writing to cover the cost of returning one pair. On the invoice, dated Dec. 27, 2020, she was billed $299 for each pair, plus $130 for shipping by priority mail. Nowhere on the invoice did it say the purchase was in U.S. dollars, even though the retailer and customer were both in Canada. However, the website does show the cost at $299 (U.S.). She sent back the size nine boots on Jan. 22, 2021 (too big) and kept the size eights for a few more weeks while walking up and down her carpeted hallway. But she returned the second pair on Feb. 24 at her expense after finding they made her shuffle along on flat feet. “These boots would have been unsafe for me since they impaired my normal gait. The internal mechanism that controls the cleats makes the boots very heavy and completely rigid,” she said.

By early March, Kickspike was holding on to her payment and both boots, never worn outdoors. That’s when it started dancing around her requests for a refund. “Sorry for delay, Deb,” Bachmann wrote. “Our accounting dept. has been dealing with COVID and it’s caused delay. We’ll get that done ASAP and sorry boots didn’t work out for you.”

“A light came on,” she said. “This was not an acceptable way to do business.” The delay made it difficult to dispute the transaction with her credit card issuer (Collabria Financial, which serves credit unions). In a process known as a chargeback, customers have 60 to 120 days after the purchase date to seek reimbursement of an unpaid refund. “You replied in a very friendly and helpful way before I returned the boots,” she told Kickspike on May 14. The store was open by then and Bachmann said he’d been in hospital with COVID. “You never had the decency to inform me that the returned boots were received. You never replied to or acknowledged any of my emails. You have caused me unwarranted aggravation and anxiety by your ongoing, unexplained silence.” She tried and failed to get a chargeback from Collabria, which didn’t investigate or reply to her written request. It was clear she’d missed the credit card issuer’s 120-day deadline for initiating a dispute. 

When Cherry tracked me down last October through my website, I admit I didn’t reply either. Her email was short and vague. No names were mentioned. She didn’t talk about safety issues, so I thought she had a case of buyer’s remorse. But when she gave details in a later email, I started looking into Kickspike’s reputation and found poor customer reviews at Amazon, Google and Yelp, plus two complaints similar to Cherry’s posted at the Better Business Bureau site. The BBB gave the Kelowna-based company an F rating for failing to respond to both inquiries.

This 76-year-old senior needed help, I decided. And I started with an email to Nita Powers, chief client experience officer at Collabria Financial. “Upon a small amount of research, it looks like the merchant in question has history of this type of behaviour,” Powers replied. “Please give me into next week to see what we can do to assist.” Soon after, she said Collabria would give Cherry a refund and would try to get the word out to other consumers about understanding their options when purchases don’t work out. With increasing online sales during the pandemic, this message is more important than ever.

I then called Bachmann, using the phone number on Kickspike’s invoice, and reached him on a Saturday afternoon. He said the refund should have been paid and he thought it was done. He blamed his credit card processor (Helcim) for possible errors. Then, he talked about being laid up for months with two cases of COVID, forcing him to close his Canadian office and lay off all his staff. Sounding contrite, he promised to send Cherry’s refund ASAP. He’d also send a $50 gift card for meals. Could I ask her to name her favourite restaurant? Right after hanging up with me, he wrote to Cherry: “Please send mailing address. I’ll send a cheque $728.60 CAD.”  Cherry wrote back to say she paid $938 (Canadian), which seemed to surprise him. She asked her credit card issuer what to do. “He should reimburse you for the $728.60 US that he charged you months ago and received,” Nita Powers said. “You want to make it simple to receive this refund from him and as fast as possible. So far, he may simply be looking for additional ways to drag it out. “The merchant has spent 11 months attempting to blame everything around him for his lack of accountability to you. It’s time to call him on it.”

Two weeks after Bachmann’s promise to send a cheque ASAP, Cherry still had nothing. And she’d already declined his offer of a $50 gift card for meals. Too little, too late. “My date of purchase was Dec. 28, 2020,” she said. “And after many promises to refund my money, most recently on Dec. 4, 2021, I am convinced by his inaction that he has no intention of doing so, ASAP or otherwise.” Powers agreed with Cherry: “I wonder how many times he keeps reselling the same pairs of boots that quite a number of people keep returning?” – and recommended that she write about her bad experience at the BBB site and Google Reviews to help warn others.

So, how do you fight back against online retailers that delay refunds beyond the short period for credit card chargebacks? Here are my best tips:

1- Don’t order online and pay in full without doing research. Type the company’s name and “consumer complaints” into a Google search and see what comes up. Don’t stop at the first page of results. Always visit BBB.org to find client complaints and reviews, plus the BBB’s ratings of the business.

2- Ask the company about refunds, exchanges, and returns. Does it post information about its policies at the website? You want to see something in writing to double check on what you’re told.

3- Notify your credit card issuer promptly about a dispute. If a retailer refuses a refund or ignores your request, ask for a chargeback. Don’t wait longer than a couple of months. And if your order never shows up, insist on your right to start the dispute period from the latest anticipated delivery date—not the purchase date.

4- Use a credit card for online purchases—not cash, cheque or a debit card—to protect yourself from mail order misery. Save invoices, receipts, and emails to support your case for a chargeback. Take screen shots of the firm’s website or order page. Record your phone calls with staff and hold on to live chat transcripts.

Do you have a serious consumer complaint about a Canadian company to bring to my attention? Write to me at ellen@ellenroseman.com. I’ll get back to you, even if I can’t help you resolve it.


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