Living with credit, Shopping

Super Bowl scam: Buy big-screen TV, return it days later

Jay MacDonald

Ah, Super Bowl LII weekend! Put your feet up, grab a cold one and watch all the festivities on that new ginormous-screen TV you bought last week and plan to return bright and early Monday morning. The ink won’t even have dried on the hundreds of dollars you charged to supersize your Super Bowl viewing, much less hit your monthly credit card bill.

Unfortunately, this unsportsmanlike conduct, known to retailers as merchandise return fraud or “wardrobing,” has become a troubling tradition, the dark underbelly of the pre-Super Bowl TV sales that have grown to resemble Black Friday and Cyber Monday promotions.

Buy it, return it: A costly bad practice

Wardrobing apparently derives its nickname from the fashion world, where certain unsavory sorts among us would buy a new dress or suit, wear it to a special occasion, then reattach the tags and return it for a full refund.

Ironically, Amazon last year turned this situational fraud into a promotional opportunity with the launch of Prime Wardrobe, which allows Prime members to try on clothing, shoes and accessories in their own homes for a week with no upfront charge, and only pay for what they keep.

At least a wardrobed Super Bowl-worthy TV doesn’t typically come back with sweat stains and wedding cake smears, right? But that’s about where the good news of this costly bad practice ends.

According to the 2017 Organized Retail Crime Survey by the National Retail Federation, U.S. retailers lose $17.6 billion to retail merchandise fraud annually or about 10 percent of all returns. Total merchandise returns cost retailers a whopping $351 billion in lost sales last year, falling just short of the estimated U.S. federal budget deficit of $400 billion. Those wardrobe malfunctions caused retailers to increase prices to consumers and cut between 596,000 and 775,000 jobs last year.

Just the cost of doing business, you say? Au contraire; last year, return fraud and abuse cost states between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion in lost sales tax; cities and counties lost another $264 million to $343 million. Ultimately, we all get the bill for those shortages.

Wardrobing TVs in particular has been on the rise the past few years, with this fraudulent form of big-screen returns occurring between the post-holiday and post-Super Bowl period. In 2016 alone, TV returns jumped 217 percent from the fourth to first quarter.

Arguably, the growth of credit cards and mobile payments plays right into the wardrober’s game plan by lending them money they may not have, and alas will not need, since their hidden intent is to rent rather than own. So, too, the sharing economy of Uber and Airbnb may have taken some of the public heat off of wayward consumers who just want to share the Super Bowl with that 82-inch Samsung from Best Buy.

Retailers take steps to discourage wardrobing

Retailers find themselves in a precarious situation when it comes to wardrobing, which is far from their main concern with return fraud.

According to the NRF, the number of merchants who experienced shoplifting (68 percent), employee return fraud/collusion (65 percent), merchandise purchased with counterfeit money (57 percent) and returns made by organized crime groups (54 percent) far exceeded the measly 40 percent who experienced wardrobing. Plus, they still have a salable TV, albeit slightly used, to show for it.

In fact, the last thing that those big-box stores want to do is to even appear to impede consumers from lugging those big-screen monsters out the door. The sales volume they achieve by running those expensive Super Bowl promotions come but once or twice a year, and a sorry lot of wardrobers aren’t going to spoil the party.

That said, retailers who don’t relish the idea of being your home rental provider use a number of techniques to prevent or at least discourage wardrobing.

Some charge a significant restocking fee on certain high-end items, others only offer a store credit or exchange instead of a refund, a few won’t take back certain electronics at all if you’ve torn off the plastic (there are even online videos that teach wardrobers how to unpack inconspicuously), and still others shorten the return window to keep you from enjoying your squirrely Super Bowl rental for spring training.

This Sunday, hit the recliner, turn on the Super Bowl and give thanks that you own that beast on which you’re watching it. And maybe during halftime, send a positive wish to those wardrobers that they will one day be able to do the same.

See related: Need to return a gift? Here are major retailers’ policies

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