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Some Shoppers Find Fewer Happy Returns

But workers worry that some companies, for instance, use the word "inactive" to refer to people who have left the company for any reason; other companies use "terminated," a word that some employees have argued has negative connotations. Perhaps the most common complaint is that job titles are incorrect. One woman, Shelli Isiminger of Dover, Del., said one of her former employers reported that she was a "supervisor" rather than a "call center manager," a big distinction in her industry and one she worries has cost her jobs.

"To have a discrepancy, to make it seem like I inflated my title, is a kiss of death," she said.

KB Toys is among the national retailers rolling out electronic systems that track shopping history to decide if a consumer should be granted a return. (John Sushocki -- Springfield (mass.) Republican Via AP)

Mike Smith, vice president for marketing at Talx, said that the company tries to facilitate communication between employees and employers but that it considers itself an agent for the employers and that any changes to records must be made through them.

Another company, DoctorsKnowUs.com, created a database of people who have filed malpractice claims as a resource for doctors. John S. Jones, a radiologist from Kaufman, Tex., who spent seven years compiling the information for the site, said he took it offline after some patients complained that it was impossible to differentiate between those with legitimate claims and those with frivolous ones, and that all could be denied care by those using the list. Since then, however, Jones has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from doctors who want the site back online, and he said in an interview that he is considering resurrecting it.

"It was public information. . . . I was simply aggregating it," he said. "The site was mischaracterized as a blacklist."

A spokesman for Limited Brands Inc., which owns the Express stores, declined to answer questions about its computerized return authorization system. Mark R. Hilinski, a co-founder of the Return Exchange Inc., an Irvine, Calif.-based company that provides technology for the retail chain, said the computer denies returns to 1 to 2 percent of customers at most stores. He said even though the database is not subject to the requirements of the Fair Credit Act, his company provides consumers a free copy of their report when they ask and it gives them an opportunity to correct inaccurate data. He added that very few have disputed the information.

"The system is often highly reliable. We have a very fair system to make us aware of any discrepancies they think they found in their report," said Hilinski, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

He said the company's privacy policy prevents him from commenting on individual experiences. The company's criteria for judging returns varies from retailer to retailer and is not disclosed because it might inadvertently aid those who want to abuse the system. It's possible, the company said, that a return rejected one day could come in the next day and be approved.

Hilinski added that the company is not aggregating return data from multiple retailers but that there has been interest from clients who want to share return information with one another.

Return fraud has been a major drain on retailers' coffers. Richard Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said retailers in 2003 lost nearly $30 billion, or 1.7 percent of sales, because of fraud and that about half of that may be related to bad returns. In recent years, scammers have used the Internet to launder the money -- people steal merchandise, return it for credit slips at stores, then turn those credit slips into cash by selling them at a discount on eBay or other online auction sites.

Retailers like the Limited are fighting back against such high-tech fraud with high-tech defenses. Sometime in the spring, consumers and Express workers say, the store began replacing the black placards denoting its return policy to note that it was using the Return Exchange service. The new signs advertise the "Express Guarantee" and say consumers have up to 60 days to return items. However, the company's return policy also notes that it uses an "industry wide" system to authorize returns and that "under certain circumstances we reserve the right to deny returns."

Some consumer and privacy rights advocates say they sympathize with retailers' desire to root out fraud but said they are worried that disclosure about the electronic tracking system has been inadequate. Jordana Beebe, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, said consumers should be told exactly why their return is denied and warned before they hit that point.

Salerno said the report she got from the Return Exchange showed she had made six returns from June to August for a total of about $375 but that in at least four cases the transactions were exchanges and she actually ended up spending more money on other clothes. She said she contacted the company by phone and by mail to complain. In one letter, Salerno wrote that she felt the computerized system impinges on people's "freedom on how they should or not spend their money." She said she has not received a response.

Hollinger, who consults for the Limited, said that cases like Salerno's represent the "teeny tiny glitches" in the system that he feels will eventually be worked out. "Over the decades, retailers realized they were leaving the door wide open for fraud and a number of the major ones realized that . . . there has to be some technological solution to this," Hollinger said.

But for all the money and effort retailers have spent on this high-tech system, there appears to be a low-tech loophole, Salerno discovered. After giving up on trying to clear her record with the company, she enlisted the help of a friend, who was able to return the unwanted clothes without hassle.

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