Consumer IQ

Don’t Let Companies Cheat You: 5 Steps to Keeping Them Honest

If you’re looking for a textbook case of a customer who is allegedly being cheated by a company, check out Anthony Ferreira’s lawsuit against Groupon and Nordstrom.

The complaint, filed last year, claims the two companies issued gift certificates with relatively short expiration dates, knowing that many consumers will not use them before time runs out. The short expirations violate state and federal law, according to the complaint.

“Groupon’s systematic placement of expiration dates on its gift certificates is deceptive and harmful to consumers,” the lawsuit claims.

The remarkable thing isn’t that this was filed (it’s not the first gripe about Groupon’s rapidly-expiring product) but the reaction: A collective shrug from the public, followed by a super-successful initial public offering of Groupon that valued the young company at $12.7 billion.

Noe, what’s noteworthy about this is that we give any company that’s been accused of cheating us our business, and lots of it.

I’m guilty as charged, as my better half loves Groupon and is constantly on the site. My birthday present last year was a voucher from Groupon.

The point is, the cheaters often couldn’t do their cheating without our help. (See last week’s post about the bogus car part manufacturer shut down by the Federal Trade Commission if you don’t believe me.) Are we enabling their unethical behavior?

I think the answer is often “yes.” But I also believe we can break the cycle. Here’s how:

Void the transaction and ask for your money back.

If you suspect your company is pulling a fast one, which is to say, offering a shoddy product or service, the time to act is now. If you can return the product, do it. You might not have a problem with it now, but what happens a year from now, when it’s out of warranty? Bottom line: You don’t want to be doing business with that company. Turn around and leave.

Tell them why.

What’s the point of denying a company your business and then not giving them a reason? This must be communicated to someone at the highest level, preferably in writing. Documentation like this can be shared with other managers or, if necessary, with someone you know. More on that in a moment.

Walk away.

Don’t patronize a business that cheats you. Not now, and certainly, not in the future. Your single purchase may not persuade it to change its ways, but over your lifetime, the missing revenue will send a strong message that its cheating will not be rewarded. (By the way, I’m a big believer in second chances. So, if you see a change in management or a change of heart among employees, don’t hesitate to give ‘em another try.)

Complain to law enforcement.

If the cheating breaks the law, which it often does, you have a responsibility to let local, state and federal law enforcement know about it. If the behavior doesn’t break any laws, then maybe you should go to court or contact your elected representative to ensure it is against the law.

Tell your friends.

The court of public opinion may be the most influential one of all. If you tell your friends about a negative experience and they tell their friends, then before long, the wrath of a company’s customers will be brought to bear on an ethically-challenged company. That’s often the only way they’ll change their behavior.

When I think about customers enabling cheating companies, I’m reminded of the military academies’ honor code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” If customers didn’t tolerate companies who behaved unethically, and if they acted on it, then it would happen far less than it does.

Maybe, almost never.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.