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Savvy shopping: Thompson’s tips

NBC's Lea Thompson tells consumers how to get results when they think they've been ripped off.
/ Source: NBC News

The Federal Trade Comission estimates U.S. buyers are unhappy with 75 million purchases every year but only 4 percent ever formally complain. Why not? Perhaps because we think it’s too much trouble. But you can get results, often with little effort. Here are some tips on what to do if you are disserviced or down-right ripped off. By complaining you can often get your money back, help your fellow consumers in the process and maybe even get free coupons, discounts, upgrades and/or a heartfelt apology.
It’s probably best to bypass the voice on the other end of the line or the kid at the cash register. Get the manager, he will likely care more. But just in case he doesn’t, be sure to ask his boss’s name before you start explaining your complaint. With his boss in mind, he’s likely to approach the situation more gingerly.
Oftentimes merely writing a letter informing your nemesis how you intend to proceed is enough. Write a letter laying-out the situation, your complaint and what you want. And here’s the trick: copy the letter to all the government agencies that might possibly have power over that particular company, to the local press, to Dateline’s consumer unit, to legislators, etc. When the company sees that they’ve got a well-informed, tough cookie of a customer, you’re likely to get a swift and serious response. If you’re a squeaky wheel, they’ll often opt to just shut you up.
You can use that same letter to file a complaint. The Better Business Bureau is a good start. But be sure to also file that letter with the agencies that have actual enforcement power. Usually the city or county consumer affairs office where the company with which you have a problem is based.
Take names, numbers, notes, receipts. Keep paperwork, packaging and ads to which you respond. If you don’t have the person’s name, it didn’t happen; no receipt, no dice; if you can’t prove the ad promised something the company didn’t deliver consumer agencies will have little basis for action.
Use our Consumer Directory for ideas on the agencies and organizations where you can report problems, suspected frauds and the like. Also you’ll find many consumer groups and government offices that offer information about everything from Aging to Utilities.
There’s obvious advice like do your research, only hire licensed contractors, get it in writing. But there’s a couple of tricks, too.
Go to the appliance store or car lot with the latest addition of Consumer Reports on the topic. Display it prominently.
One phone call. Companies are popping up to help good business people and customers connect. For example, there are companies that screen and refer home improvement contractors and arbitrate if a problem arises.
Word of Mouth. Get recommendations from your friends and neighbors.
Deal with local businesses, become a regular. When you establish yourself as a good, regular customer, businesses may put a higher value on keeping you happy.