Whether it’s a product that doesn’t live up to its claims, or a shoddy service job, a bad experience with a purchase can leave you feeling scammed and upset.
When it’s a small transaction, you can usually ignore it and move on, vowing to never buy from that business again. But, when it leaves a larger hole in your pocket or has caused real damage, you will want (and deserve) your money back. Or, at least an alternate compensation.
At this point, don’t be intimidated or let the lack of awareness scare you away from taking action. The process of filing a consumer complaint in the U.S. is quite straightforward once you know where to go and what to do. Most of the processes can be done online, with minimal effort from you.
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of all the avenues available to you, and the process to follow for each of them.
1. Pre-Complaint Process: Get Your Papers Together
Gather all the paperwork you have from the purchase of that product or service. This includes:
- Payment receipts/billing/invoice emails
- Order confirmation emails
- Contracts (in case of a service)
- Guarantee or warranty papers
- Instruction manuals or product descriptions
- Letters, emails, SMS & call logs. (Any and all communication you may have had about this transaction with the business)
- Collect a copy or screenshot of the initial ad or brochure you responded to (if relevant)
2. Go Back to the Store (or Website)
This may sound like trivial advice, but in reality, most issues are resolved with a complaint filed to the customer service team of the business.
Send an email to (or call) the customer service representatives of the company and explain your issue. Most businesses share their contact information on their websites in the ‘contact us,’ ‘privacy statement,’ or ‘about us’ sections.
Be clear and concise about the issue in your email or phone call. Ask the service representative for the specific action you want to resolve the issue. (For example: an exchange, replacement, repair, or refund.)
It’s understandable for you to be angry and emotional about the issue, but try to keep calm and be firm in your tone.
But remember, in case of damaged or defective goods, don’t wait too long before you take this action. Most companies tend to have a limited time frame in which you can return or exchange a product.
Bonus Tip: If you are looking to return a product after the seller’s final return date has passed, try contacting the manufacturer directly.
Finally, don’t forget to keep track of your efforts to resolve the problem with the company. Maintain a collection of:
- All the emails or letters you send or receive
- The call log details of all conversations you may have had (including the names of those you spoke with and the action they promised)
- Screenshots of online chats with service reps.
If the company ignores the complaint, or you are dissatisfied with their handling of it, then you can choose to warn others by writing an honest online review. This might even motivate the company to reach out to you and attempt to resolve the issue better!
3. Contact Your Local ‘Consumer Protection Offices’
If the company has failed to resolve your complaint (or even respond to it), it’s time for you to take it to a third party.
You can file a complaint with your local or state-level consumer agency. These government agencies mediate complaints and investigate and prosecute any businesses found breaking consumer protection laws.
You can find the names and contact details of the agencies available in your specific state on this official U.S. government website.
These agencies vary slightly depending on the state you’re in and the issue you wish to raise. In most cases, you will be directed to the Office of the Attorney General to file your consumer complaint.
To save time and avoid confusion, call the office before you send a formal complaint email or letter. Confirm if the office jurisdiction covers the complaint you have, and if there are any additional forms you need to fill out.
4. Take Alternate Action: Better Business Bureau (BBB)
The BBB is a private, nonprofit organization that is focused on increasing trust in the market. It grades businesses based on their trustworthiness and service performance, and acts as a mediator when customers have complaints.
The Bureau’s grading system for business takes into account their history of handling customer complaints. Businesses value this rating, as it affects a customer’s trust and perception of the brand. Companies are motivated to resolve any complaints filed against them by the BBB.
You can file your complaint directly on their website by filling out a simple form.
They ask you a series of questions designed to help them work towards resolving the dispute. Be as specific as possible when you answer, so that you can make the process quick and efficient.
Everything you submit will be forwarded to the company within two working days. The company will be required to respond within 14 days. If a response is not received, a second request will be made, and you will be notified of the company’s response (or lack of response) immediately.
5. File a Complaint with the FTC
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) uses consumer complaints to help them investigate businesses for fraud. They do not resolve individual complaints, but use these to detect patterns of fraud in business practices.
While this may not help you get your money back, it helps prevent the company from exploiting others. They even share your complaint with over 3,000 law enforcement agencies to ensure the pattern isn’t repeated.
To file a complaint, simply go to this website and answer the questions. After your complaint is registered, you will be given suggestions to protect yourself from future scams or malpractices.
Bonus Tip: If your issue has risen from an online purchase from outside the U.S., you can report it at https://www.econsumer.gov/. They accept complaints on international scams, and work with over 40 agencies worldwide to prevent fraud.
6. Try Alternative Methods of Dispute Resolution
Many consumers use resolution methods such as mediation and arbitration as alternatives to going to court.
Mediation is a quick and efficient option to resolve a dispute. It involves a neutral third party who helps you and the other party try to resolve the problem. But, it’s up to you and the other party to reach an agreement.
Arbitration is a less formal procedure than going to court, but you and the company representative may need to appear at hearings, present evidence, or call and question any witnesses. Unlike mediation, an arbitrator (or a panel) makes a final decision once you’ve presented your case. This decision may be legally binding.
7. Consider Going to Small Claims Court
Perhaps the final alternative you have, before filing a full-blown lawsuit, is to file a case in a small claims court.
Small claims court is a special type of court where disputes can be resolved quickly and inexpensively. They have simple procedures, and lawyers are usually not needed. But, resolving claims here requires dedicated time and effort from your end.
You can check with your local small claims court for information about how to file your lawsuit.
8. Last Resort: File a Lawsuit
If all else fails, and you believe the issue is worth a legal battle, then you may want to hire a lawyer and consider filing a lawsuit.
You can resolve your issue through the legal system by suing for damages or any other type of relief the court awards. Once you hire a lawyer, they will advise you on how to proceed and the next steps.
But, do not worry, a consumer complaint does not usually need to reach this stage to be resolved.
Finally, to avoid being entangled with issues like this again, read up on recommended consumer practices for safe online shopping. If you found this post helpful, share it with your friends and family to guide them the next time they are faced with an unfair purchase experience in the U.S.
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