The Mail Crunch: Effectively Handle Damaged or Stolen Packages

Online shopping is a fantastic convenient tool, particularly around the holidays. It opens up an enormous array of options for gift-giving (as well as shopping for ourselves), but it’s not all perfect.

One of the big risks of ordering from online retailers is that there is a chance, however small, that the item will arrive damaged, that the item will be snatched from your front step after delivery, or that it won’t be delivered at all. I’ve had packages fall into all three of those groups in the past, and I’ve learned some lessons the hard way.

Here are some of the best practices you can follow with regards to handling damaged, lost, or stolen packages effectively, particularly during the holiday season.

Be proactive and give plenty of shipping time.

This is my number one rule when it comes to buying gifts online, particularly during the super-busy holiday season. I generally don’t order packages online unless there’s enough time for the package to get here twice and with an extra day or two of shipping on both journeys. If it’s got two day shipping, I won’t order it less than a week in advance of the event; if it’s slower than that, I give it two weeks.

Why? This gives the package a little extra time to arrive and be evaluated for damage or to not arrive at all while still giving me plenty of time to fix the problem and have a replacement delivery make it before the event.

If you don’t have that lead time, you run a real risk of having packages

Yes, this does mean that it’s hard to order perishable gifts through the mail. A simple way to handle this is to simply avoid ordering perishable gifts through the mail for holiday gift-giving.

If you’re going to buy holiday gifts online, do it now — like, right now — rather than later, so you have time to do the other things on this list if something goes wrong.

If you won’t be home at the delivery time but have a friend who will be, have the item shipped to that friend.

I’m lucky in that I work from home so I’m here to receive packages during the day, but many people aren’t so lucky. If you are going to have a package delivered while you’re out of the house, it might be a smart idea to simply check with friends and see if any of them will be home when the package would be delivered.

Do you have a friend who works from home or a stay-at-home parent that lives near you? Simply ask your friend if you can have a package or two delivered at their house, then stop by and pick it up as soon as you can.

This is a simple added layer of protection against theft at your doorstep.

Know the lost package, damaged item and return policies of the business you’re buying from.

Most online retailers have very clear information about what you need to do in order to report an item as damaged, lost or stolen. For example, Amazon has a very helpful page outlining its procedures in each of those cases; most online retailers have similar documents that can be found on their website.

Before you buy a holiday gift from a retailer, spend the time to read through their policies so you know what will happen if the item turns up lost, stolen, or damaged. I’m pretty familiar with Amazon’s policies, for example, but if I’m shopping from another retailer, I take the time to check their policy and I usually bookmark it so I can quickly find it later if something goes wrong. I can always delete that bookmark in a few weeks if everything’s fine.

Document, document, document.

Keep note of everything that happened regarding your lost, stolen, or damaged item. Note when you bought it, when it was shipped, each step it took in tracking, when it was delivered, when you noticed it missing (if it was) and what problems you noticed with the item. If the item is damaged, take some pictures of it with your phone immediately upon opening, along with pictures of the packaging.

I strongly suggest writing all of that down and having it ready before you contact a customer service line. The customer service agent will be asking questions and if you have that information ready to go, it will be much easier to provide answers.

Don’t delay in contacting the retailer, but check the procedure first.

As soon as you’re aware of a problem, check the documentation and follow the procedure they have stated for what to do if your item is lost or stolen or damaged. Often, for lost or stolen items, the retailer encourages you to wait a day or two before contacting them because packages often turn up a day late (maybe someone left the item in their delivery truck because they needed to get home or something), so contacting the retailer immediately won’t help.

The sooner you begin following procedure for contacting the company and getting the situation resolved, the better. However, contacting the company when you haven’t followed all of the steps they’ve listed will just mean frustration for both you and the customer service representative you’ll be talking to. They will ask you if you’ve done the things listed and if you haven’t, you’ll both be frustrated. Check the policy first and make sure you’ve done your part before calling.

Be calm, patient, and polite.

When you contact the retailer, be calm, patient and polite. If you’re making contact when you feel angry or annoyed, give yourself some time to calm down before contacting them.

Here’s the truth: the customer service person you’ll talk to is someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with the package problems you’re having. They did not damage your package. They did not steal your package. They did not lose your package. Rather, they’re just trying to help you fix the problem as efficiently as possible, and they’re usually already harried because of other people yelling at them for things they didn’t do.

The best approach is to be calm, patient, and polite. Be as positive as you can with them and thank them for their efforts. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t get angry. Say “please” and “thank you.” Appreciate their efforts, even if they didn’t get you the resolution you ideally wanted. If you want to escalate your request, ask to do so politely. This will get you far better service and help than being angry or demanding, as no one likes it or wants to help someone who is angry or upset with them.

If you’re sure a package has been stolen, file a police report.

Simply call up your local police department and report that a package was stolen from your front step. You may need to do this if an insurance claim is needed or the retailer or shipper won’t fix the problem (the retailer may or may not, depending on the exact situation and their specific policies).

When you do this, make sure that you have everything already documented about the potentially stolen package, as suggested earlier. Have the ship date, shipping carrier, delivery date, contents of the package and the tracking number available if you’re reporting the package as stolen.

This likely won’t help you recover the package, but it may be able to help you recover the value of the stolen item.

It’s not the end of the world.

Remember that if a holiday package is damaged, lost, or stolen, it’s not the end of the world. You might be able to pick up the same item locally if needed or order the item a second time. If that doesn’t work, you can likely find something at least similar locally or online.

Keep in mind that the purpose of a holiday gift is to show someone you care, and you can still achieve that goal even if there’s a problem with a package. It’s a minor setback that’s easy to recover from.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.