It’s no secret that retailers are cracking down on returns.

In 2023, 81% of U.S. retailers implemented pay-to-return policies in some capacity. Amazon, Macy’s, T.J.Maxx, Walmart and Staples all rolled out changes to their established return policies. That may look like shrinking return windows, charging for some returns, or in some cases simply telling shoppers to “keep it

Shoppers racked up more than $5 trillion worth of retail sales in the U.S. last year, according to the National Retail Federation. About 14.5% of those sales were returned. That equates to an enormous value in returned goods: $743 billion in 2023 alone.

“Most of the returns that come back cost up to 40% of the original retail price to put that item back on the shelf,” said Robert Overstreet, Iowa State assistant professor of supply chain management. “There’s no guarantee they can sell it for what they originally asked for it, so they’re losing money on both ends.”

The recent changes are just the latest effort to tamp down on return losses. Many large retailers in the U.S. have long been engaged in the practice of quietly tracking and targeting return behavior. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, U.S. retailers use third-party loss-prevention services to track risky return behavior. This doesn’t outright mean fraudulent activity, but rather behavior that “mimics” or could be linked to such behavior.

The most notable third-party loss-prevention service is The Retail Equation, a software provider that tracks return behavior that retailers deem potentially fraudulent. It then assigns a return score to shoppers based on the data provided by retailers, giving the software the ability to override a store’s return policy, leaving shoppers with no refund and a printed notice directing them to The Retail Equation’s website to explain why their return was blocked.

The problem is, many shoppers are unaware this type of tracking is even happening, leaving many feeling blindsided when they get to a return counter and are told they are not getting their money back. Or, even worse, they get banned from the practice of returning products to the store altogether.

According to several now-dismissed lawsuits and Better Business Bureau complaints, customers reported they were following a store’s return policy and were still issued a warning. Some customers complained the information found on their report given by The Retail Equation was incorrect and that they were left with no way of knowing or remedying the information until after their return was rebuffed.

Watch the video above to hear more about how this tracking works and what types of behaviors might get a shopper flagged as a ‘problem returner’.

Clarification: Best Buy ended its relationship with The Retail Equation in 2019, according to the company.

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