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

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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