Updated on 03.29.08

Just Got Ripped Off By A Consumer Product? Five Things to Do Right Now – And Six Ways to Follow Up

Trent Hamm

Every once in a while, I’ll run into some kind of product that’s either defective or sold with completely misleading packaging. Depending on the severity of the problem (ranging from rancid potato chips to a broken external hard drive), I’ve shrugged it off or blown a complete gasket.

In either extreme, though, the same philosophy applies: you, as a consumer, don’t have to accept faulty or misleading products – but it never pays to lose your cool, either. Here are some tips on how to immediately handle a faulty product – and what to do over the long haul if the problem isn’t resolved.

How to React Effectively: Immediate Actions

If you come across a serious problem with a consumer product, it’s not a good idea to react emotionally. Instead, the best thing you can do is record what happened, wait until your cooler head has prevailed, and then consider the situation. Here are five steps to follow no matter what the problem.

Document the exact problem, with photographic evidence if possible
As soon as you discover something is wrong, stop. Don’t continue to open the item. Don’t get frustrated and chuck the item. Stop and record the problem. Take pictures or video of the problem so that the issue is recorded as clearly as possible, even if it’s something trivial like moldy bread or rancid chips. Take detailed notes as well, describing when and where the product was bought – a receipt is often good to have around, too.

Identify and document the claim that you feel was violated
Once you’ve identified the issue and recorded it, check out the packaging, documentation, and promotion of the product and identify the statement(s) that misrepresent the product you have. If you can find direct evidence of a misleading statement, then your case becomes much stronger, as this often distinguishes between a poor product and malfeasance.

Wait until you’ve calmed down if the problem seriously upsets you
At this point, if you’re still emotional about the situation, wait before you escalate. Calm down. Put everything off to the side and wait a few days before going forward. Don’t start reacting in the heat of the moment and blow a minor issue completely out of proportion or else you will not receive a good resolution.

Do an honest evaluation of the seriousness of the problem
When you’re calm, look at the problem again and ask yourself how serious it is and what you think is an appropriate response. For example, it’s probably a waste of your time to start contacting lawyers over improperly salted potato chips, but if something just exploded in your entertainment center, that’s a serious problem that deserves appropriate escalation.

If you feel that action is necessary, write out your entire case in detail before you make a move
Many people dive right into contacting people and raising issues without really having all of their facts collected. Take a bit of time and collect everything you’ve documented and all information that’s available in one place before moving forward with the issue.

How to Respond Effectively: Later Actions

You’ve documented everything, calmed down, and decided that some sort of further action is needed. Now what? There are a lot of avenues available to you – I’ve listed six potential courses of action below (most of which I’ve done in the past) in rough order of seriousness.

Call the customer service hotline
Appropriate for: a first response in almost any situation.

Most calls to the customer service hotline for small items will result in vouchers for replacements, and for larger items will likely result in a shipment of the defective item to the company for repair. The vast majority of calls to customer support for minor issues are resolved pretty painlessly and quickly, and this should be your first tactic for any issue unless something is intensely wrong.

Contact a higher-level executive in the organization
Appropriate for: issues that don’t get resolved by customer service calls.

The next step is usually to send a letter and a copy of your documentation to someone high up the food chain in the organization that sold you the flawed product. Visit the corporate website and look for an appropriate vice president, then draft a cordial letter explaining the problem and your desired solution to that person. In most remaining cases, this will resolve the issue and also alert the company to some quality control issues within their own company.

Contact the company through a public messageboard
Appropriate for: organizations with a strong online presence, particularly large ones.

If you still can’t get any attention, you need to start shouting louder. One place to start is in a public forum monitored by the organization where you’re sure someone from the organization is reading. Again, be cordial and state your entire situation and your desired solution. If you’re cordial about it and have a real problem, you’ll usually ring someone’s bell within the organization.

Tell your story to a consumer advocate
Appropriate for: businesses in service industries or in highly competitive industries.

Don’t start down this road unless you’ve exhausted direct means of contacting the company and can document that you’ve tried to resolve it internally. If you’ve done that, it’s time to escalate the complaint and contact third parties. In the internet age, one of the best places to contact is The Consumerist, which is read by the PR firms of almost every significantly sized company in America. If you can get their attention and get a story there, you will raise some flags. Another (quieter) avenue is the Federal Trade Commission, which can be slow but will come to the plate for you. Some recommend the Better Business Bureau, but I’ve heard a lot of reports that they don’t help you at all in many situations. Regardless of the route you choose, send them your entire story and continue the mantra of cordiality and documentation.

Contact a mainstream media source
Appropriate for: repeatedly ignoring your issue.

If you still can’t get someone to pay attention, package up everything and send it to the editor-in-chief of a local media organization – a newspaper or television station. While most of these don’t necessarily have a direct consumer advocate (some do, but far from the majority), most will be interested in something that seems like a ready-made story. Here, documentation is key – lay out all the information you have along with the resolution you wanted and didn’t get.

Contact a lawyer
Appropriate for: gross negligence.

If you’ve been personally injured (or someone you care for has been), legal assistance may be appropriate. This is the last straw, though, as this is the scorched-earth road. If a lawyer takes up your case, there will be a lot of ramifications and a lot of legal bills (unless you get someone who will work for a piece of the settlement) and possibly some serious intrusive publicity you may not want along with the company’s lawyers breathing down your neck. However, if something was seriously damaging to you, don’t hesitate to contact legal assistance.

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  1. Christine says:

    Just wanted to speak up for the Better Business Bureau – I filed complaints with them on two different occasions(via their website) after endless run-around from custormer service. Both times I was contacted within two days by someone at the offending company who had the power to help me, and I got the resolution I wanted (in one case a refund, in the other a 3-month free extension of service).

  2. LC says:

    I wish I had read this last year. Our new dryer had a light fixture inside that exploded on my husband’s face as he was doing laundry the 1st time we used it. If it was me, I probably would have been seriously injured. The manufacturer ignored us for awhile and finally sent someone to replace the light bulb. It has been fine ever since (the 1st bulb wasn’t snapped in all the way at the manufacturer), but given the seriousness, you would think they would have paid more attention, done a recall, or at least replaced the machine.

  3. Derek says:

    I’ve had someone file a Better Business Bureau complaint against my company. I resolved it by saying, “Well, I refunded your purchase when you asked, three months ago.” So, check your facts.

    Also, stick to the proper level of escalation, and don’t preemptively threaten to escalate, that’s just annoying. “Hello, could I have a $16 refund? If you don’t, I’m going to the press.”

  4. My.cold.dead.hands says:

    It’s always best to approach things with a cool head, and if you have a systematic approach even better.

    For a customer to go ballistic is just annoying, but companies don’t do themselves any favors by ignoring complaints or giving people the run-around.

  5. Tony says:


    You mention using online message forums. Do you have any that you recommend? I’ve tried my3cents.com before in the past, but didn’t have a lot of luck.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “You mention using online message forums. Do you have any that you recommend? I’ve tried my3cents.com before in the past, but didn’t have a lot of luck.”

    Look for ones run by the companies themselves. If you want to get their attention, that’s about the best way to do it.

  7. Saving Freak says:

    I find that most major companies monitor the message boards at “insert company name” stinks.com. Or type a company name with stinks or some other reference into google. I know the cell phone companies monitor the sites and many of the retailers as well.

  8. Miranda says:

    Great tips! I always have my husband call on these issues because he remains calm — and polite. And he usually gets what he wants. We got a reduced price on a Dish Network package when he called to complain about the whole NFL Network snafu…

  9. Rap says:

    Can I add that you need to have reasonable expectations? I work in credit card customer service and I am amazed on a daily basis how completely ridiculous some claims are. The consumer does not dictate store policy and shouting doesn’t change that. Places like Target have really reasonable return policies – if you bought something that you held onto for over ninety days and didn’t realize it was broken/didn’t care enough about getting your money back to return it within the timeframe – the store is not being UNFAIR in holding you to their incredibly well posted policy.

    Your job as a consumer is to be educated, and to be realistic. I had someone today throw a hissy because they want to return something they bought with their credit card – it broke after a YEAR of use – and I had to advise them that its very unlikely that a store is going to issue a full refund. That’s unrealistic.

  10. Shalom says:

    Great info.

  11. Golfing Girl says:

    This is perfect timing for a few recent situations I’ve had. I opened a frozen meal to discover the main course was missing. I’ve eaten close to 100 meals of this brand and knew it was an anomoly. I contacted them via the website told them as a loyal customer I was shocked to see what had happened. They took my comment very seriously and asked for the ID number and store so they could track where it occured. They also sent me 3 coupons for replacements.
    I also got an item off e-bay that did not fit the description so I contacted the seller before posting a terrible review. he promised to correct it free of charge and appreciated being given a chance to correct it before getting a bad review. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I’ve gotten a lot of discounts and free items for politely bringing something to the attention of the owner/provider/etc.

  12. Great post! I had a bad experience with a room air conditioner a few years back. It quit working two weeks after we got it. I kept detailed records of what happened during the two month-ordeal, and wrote a polite, but strong letter to the company. They called shortly after that and apologized profusely and asked if a $50 gift card would make me feel better. (It did). I’ve called companies for little things, too, and have found that if you’re polite, they are usually willing to make it up to you.

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