I probably can’t help these customers, but should I still try?

paris2If you knew you were a consumer advocate but knew you probably couldn’t help a consumer, what would you say?

For example, if you heard from someone like Donna Hamilton, who is looking for a refund on French taxes, how would you respond?

Hamilton made two purchases on her credit card in Paris last year. You can get your French “value-added” tax refunded if you’re leaving the country, and there are several services that help you, refunding the purchase directly to your credit card.

“I completed the necessary forms in Paris, and upon returning to the United States, sent the additional request forms via registered mail,” she says. “To date, I have not received my credit. Do I have any recourse?”

I won’t keep you guessing. I advised Hamilton to send the company handling her refund another email, asking about her money. If that doesn’t work, she may need to check with her credit card and file a dispute. But I’ve tried to get VAT refunds for purchases made in other European countries on behalf of readers in the past. The operators ignore me.

To be clear, I want to help, but these companies have often never heard of my site or the outlets I write for, and even a polite email asking them to help doesn’t get answered. They have Hamilton’s money, so what do they care?

Here’s another one from Sheree Bill, whose daughter’s luggage was lost on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles during the holidays.

“She was told to come back to the airport tomorrow,” she says. She did. “The luggage is still missing.”

Readers like Bill are looking for a shortcut to find the missing luggage, and although I was able to send her a list of executive contacts at her daughter’s airline, the fact is, it takes time to find these lost items. Sometimes, it’s never located.

An email sent to a manager can light a fire under the baggage department, but if a suitcase is lost, it might stay lost. I asked Bill to let me know if her daughter’s bag couldn’t be found, but never heard back from her.

Should I offer a disclaimer?

For a while now, I’ve thought about offering a disclaimer about the kinds of cases that I can’t mediate. I wonder if it’s time to post something so that people know there’s only so much I can do.

Among the travel-related cases I would consider including:

Luggage cases. I can’t go to the airport and look for your lost bag. Often, it’s impractical to push an airline for additional compensation when it comes to your misplaced luggage, because the limits are set by the federal government or the Montreal convention.

Taxes and tolls. I’ve never successfully mediated a value-added tax or a toll case. Also, the power to reverse a hidden-camera traffic fine in Italy, which is notorious for such things, is above my paygrade.

Frequent flier miles and upgrades. If your miles expire, it’s really hard to un-expire them, even if the airline didn’t provide you with ample notice. Since the points are not yours, but the property of the airline (and since you signed an agreement to that effect when you joined the program), I can’t even ask the airline to “do the right thing.” Strictly speaking, it is doing the right thing.

Then again, telling readers that I won’t even bother hearing their cases seems contrary to the spirit of my advocacy practice.

I’m really torn.

Should I publish a list of cases I can't mediate?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Kathleen Proud Keyte

    Yes, please if only to set expectations for the folks who write in asking for refunds for non-refundable fares and the like.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I think having an FAQs for people who write in with a problem they want help with is a good idea. But even within the can’t-mediate categories, there may occasionally be outliers that are worthy of a second look. I hope I never have to use your services, but I love the peace of mind knowing that you’re there for all of us if / when we do!

  • Raven_Altosk

    I would have a list of types you can’t mediate. Another one might be “my hotel room was filthy but I don’t have any pictures you just need to take my word for it.”

    If it was that dirty, and the OP was too lazy to snap a few cell phone pics, why did they stay?

    Those kind of cases would be impossible to fairly mediate, methinks.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I publish a FAQ: http://www.elliott.org/frequently-asked-questions/

    It’s getting long. The “can’t-mediate” list may need to be a different post.

  • BillCCC

    You should post a list but that doesn’t have to mean that you will not accept one if the circumstances are compelling enough.

  • TonyA_says

    Essentially you are thinking about making an SOL list.
    Here’s why I am thinking it is not a good idea.
    Many of these problems are caused because there is a lack of recourse for the victims. Think about being molested by the TSA. Unless they can be sued for assault then your weekly articles about them will not end.
    Sometimes the only way to show how hopeless the CURRENT situation is, is to publish stories about them.
    Since these problems were due to [unfair] man-made rules, then maybe through continued bad mouthing or shaming, good men and women can come in and change the rules [for the better].

  • cahdot

    ahh lost luggage.. our daughter was off to Italy but her luggage did not make it ..it ended up at our airport so we picked it up for her andby then days later she was traveling to new cities daily so delta dropped it .. so we ended up fed-exing her suitcasae.. at our cost

  • john4868

    Here’s cynical me … aka the jerk. In society today, we have a whole group of people who believe the rules just don’t apply to them. No matter what you post there will be some people who believe that you should make the exception for them just like you get the complaints that “Those mean people won’t refund my non-refundable reservation even though I have a really good reason.”

    So ultimately… you’re in a no win situation. If you publish the list, people are still going to ask and complain that you really can’t be a consumer advocate because you won’t take their case. On the flip side, if you don’t publish, you’ll continue to get cases where people are upset that gravity exists.

    For me, I’d skip the list and decline the individual cases on their merits.

  • naoma

    Hi Chris — a couple of years ago my husband “lost” his credit card when we were outside a restaurant in Paris. He immediately called and canceled it. When we arrived home we had an envelope from the French Police with our card inside. Either he dropped it and they found it or someone took it and they found it on the person when he was “arrested” for something. Nice surprise to get it back.

  • http://www.facebook.com/judyserie.nagy Judy Serie Nagy

    I enjoy reading about all kinds of travel problems and get a good education, whether you can solve them or not. One disclaimer I would add is “No Whiners”. People who don’t get their French tax refunded or have their flight cancelled need to suck it up and move on.

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    A case you can’t mediate today may be fair ground tomorrow and v.v. You might list areas(subjects) that are difficult to negotiate. Cases? No unless all details are included. This would be very wordy.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Yes, perhaps one that’s specific to people contacting you with a problem. A checklist of sorts, eg. Have you posted about this anywhere else? Have you divulged all pertinent info? Are you trying to scam me into helping you? Are you asking for more than you deserve? You know, all that good stuff…

  • SoBeSparky

    Turn the negatives into positives. While you might not provide solutions, you can help prevent them.

    Explain ways to avoid incurring these problems to begin with, what I call a “reality check.” Although travelers might not like to tailor their travel activities to what one calls “unfair” at best or “lies” at worst, a traveler must face the way the world works.

    So you can certainly make solid recommendations. Rental cars in Europe? Many reasons to forego the convenience, including damage claims and hidden cameras. Lost luggage? I include a black and white copy of my passport ID page, additional contact info and the itinerary inside a zippered pocket. When the bag bursts open, the info will not be lost. I assume the bag tags were ripped off by automated processes early in the baggage handing.

    Got a airline miles expiration problem? Buy a magazine through the frequent flyer program every year or 18 months. The cost is minimal and the miles stay in place. And you can read the magazine! Upgrades? Read the rules and the wiki’s on how they are prioritized. Checking in early (24 hours in advance on line), or making early reservations, many times greatly enhances your chances.

    Value-added taxes? Caution readers to not base the profitability of their purchases on the refund. Treat it as “found” money if it comes, not essential to have the purchase make economic sense.

    Chris, you are in the perfect place to provide this help, as you get the mail and can see the common problems to communicate work-arounds. No one reads long FAQs or similar, so advice-planning columns once a week will educate travelers on how to travel smarter.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Being a realist doesn’t make you a jerk! But perhaps having a list of inherently difficult problems to mediate (like those listed in this post) along with the question: Is there something about your case that makes it different from the rest? could filter out some cases with little to no chance of success.

  • tom65xke

    Sometimes just writing up the case serves as a good warning for the rest of us. Those VAT refund schemes never seem to work. Plus with the internet you can usually get it for the same price, delivered free to your house

  • Asiansm Dan

    For 27 years I repeat again and again to my friends and family, specially the ones who travel for the first time: “Tax refunded is a the first TOURIST TRAP for novice travelers . It encourage people spend more than they should, and most of the time, the price minus the refund is not a bargain. 27 years ago I made some purchases at Louis Vuitton Magasin on Les-Champs-Elysées, filled the form, stamped by the Custom Agent at the Airport and received a check from Credit du Nord 3 months later. The Amount on the check was 269.10 FF less than half the Refund I should received and to cash this check the bank will charge a fee of 250.00FF so the total reimbursement is 19.10FF exchange at 1$UDS=10FF rate of 1986–08-27, the check value is 20 cents. I decided to keep the check for souvenir because it had the same value of a Post-Card

  • ExplorationTravMag

    As far as the VAT, you lose all your leverage once you leave the country. That’s a losing cause, to be sure. I had to leave behind a couple hundred dollars of VAT when I went to Ireland because of long lines (I even got there three hours early, in anticipation of needing to do this, but STILL didn’t get it done).

    Lost luggage? Nope, there’s not much you can do.

    However, keep posting these and, maybe, just maybe, it will start to sink in there’s nothing you can do.

  • calbff

    Of course you’re right (unless said rules are ridiculous). However, I think if nothing else it would a good deterrent and reminder to publish the list. Only publishing cases that he mediates (which are usually successful) can lead some to believe that everything can and should be mediated.

  • john4868

    But @JamesinPhnomPenh:disqus It’s different because it’s me. My case is soooo much more special than the others :-)

  • pplaresilly

    I voted ‘NO’ because I was always taught to ‘TRY’ you never know if you don’t ‘TRY’ and if you fail, then you know you have given it your best ‘TRY’…then again, you do call yourself a consumer advocate, and not GOD right? (chuckle)

  • pauletteb

    I voted yes to the list. Unfortunately, the self-entitled who “are upset that gravity exists” (thank you, John Baker) are still going to believe that their particular case is somehow “different,” but at least you can point them to the list.

  • pauletteb

    But why should Chris waste his valuable time “trying” to fix something that is broken only in the OP’s mind, as is the case with many of these issues?

  • Grant Ritchie

    …and I’d add “Have you clicked the ‘Wiki’ link at the top of the page, and tried to help yourself?”

  • Jen

    As long as you’re nice about it, and remind readers that you would gladly help fix these kinds of cases if you could, then making such a list would be very helpful (in my opinion). Your readers, especially first-timers, then would know right away what you can and can’t do! You just can’t do everything! And, of course, state that you have tried your best repeatedly to solve these kinds of cases but they never worked out. I think you’d do your readers a favor by including such a disclaimer, as well as yourself, since you could focus more of your time on cases that you can mediate more successfully! I completely support this idea, Chris; keep up the good work!

  • HZ

    Elliott, just the other day I was reading your post about the person who had 101K miles on Delta that were suddenly not there anymore because of inactivity eventhough at the initial time of accruing the miles they were supposed to be forever. If I recall correctly you actually got those miles back. I don’t know that you can’t do anything in these cases they just might be your lower successful ones.

  • Michael__K

    Your comment implies that society (or at least some large segment of it) has changed for the worse.

    I beg to differ. What’s changed for the worse is customer service in the industries that Chris (predominantly) covers. Customer facing employees used to be able to use more common sense and discretion when their company’s rules had bad unintended consequences for their customers.

    It shouldn’t be surprising and it’s not a reflection on “society today” when infrequent travelers who are blindsided by these changes complain to Chris.

  • Helio

    When I have some tax refund to claim, I always try to arrive in the airport at least an extra half hour earlier to process the request in person in the airport counter. You can collect it in cash, and minimize the fees doing it.

    But please do it BEFORE passing through the security check point – in my last trip to France, I decided to use the tax refund counter inside the security area. I gave the forms to the officer, and he asked to check/see all my eligible purchases… and almost all of them was at the checked baggage. I couldn’t show him the goods, therefore I have no tax refund. It was a scam!

  • john4868

    @Michael__K:disqus I guess that’s where you and I disagree… There was a time when a deal was a deal but how many cases of “they won’t refund my non-refundable {fill in the blank}” has Chris reported on in the last 6 months? Last time I checked, you paid a lower price so you couldn’t get a refund. That’s how non-refundable {fill in the blank} works. You don’t get to change the terms of the deal after your made it.

    On the other side… I find the airlines fat-finger fare argument just as bad. We made a deal and you took my money.

  • Michael__K

    “Non-refundable” never meant “non-refundable with absolutely no exceptions” and it still doesn’t(*)

    The issue is that most of the exceptions (including the contractual exceptions and the de facto/discretionary ones) have disappeared in a relatively short time-span, and if you’re not following closely you may not know it.

    (*)And “Cancel for any Reason” doesn’t really mean “Cancel for ANY Reason” and “Guaranteed” doesn’t mean “Guaranteed with no exceptions”,

  • TonyA_says

    Helio, if I am not mistaken, they want to see you have a boarding pass OUT OF THE COUNTRY before they even talk to you at the airport customs. So this means, you must check in and get a boarding pass but have the stuff you bought in your hand carry or else you will need to re-check your baggage after customs.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Why should someone accept not getting their French tax refunded? Is it because they went to France and you didn’t?
    The system is supposed to work.

  • JenniferFinger

    Sorry, but if someone is supposed to be able to get their French tax refunded or have their flight cancelled, and those things don’t happen, they’re not “whiners” for expressing that this is wrong.

  • JenniferFinger

    I think that if there are cases you can’t mediate, it would be useful to make what those cases are clear, or clearer, right off the bat.

  • Crissy

    There’s no harm in saying you’re not able to mediate certain cases. Then maybe offer some general resources (or where they can find them) to mediate their own case.

    You’ll still hear from some people, but you’ll also set expectations with most people about what to reasonably expect from you.

  • KarlaKatz

    Hey, SoBeSparky, great ideas, and I’m saving your post to my “Travel Checklist” file, that I use as a check-off before every trip.

  • Michael__K

    BTW, it occurs to me that some quotes from wise men from the glory days are appropriate here:

    Those who compare the age in which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in imagination, may talk of degeneracy and decay; but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.” —Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)

    Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” —Franklin P Adams (1881-1960)

    In every age ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crises that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them.” —Brooks Atkinson (1951)

    …Girls were girls and men were men,
    Mister we could use a man
    Like Herbert Hoover again.
    Didn’t need no welfare state,

    Everybody pulled his weight.
    Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
    Those were the days.
    ” — Archie Bunker and family

  • Dutchess

    Perhaps a list of these things and a set of best practices to get them resolved? Sort of a self help section, since Chris can’t mediate them he wont have to turn them away but could instead point them to some helpful advice.

  • TmM

    Because it is money out of the foreign govt’s pocket when they do follow through with a refund. For example, in the old days, you could get the refund in cash at the duty free shop when crossing back over from Canada. Now it’s a complicated mail-in process and all of the receipts need to be stamped by someone at the crossing. If that person isn’t there or the booth is closed, you’re out of luck because there’s no longer any proof that you took those items out of the country.

  • sanibelsyl

    Although I voted yes, I would have to agree with John Baker in his remarks. As a vacation rental owner, I publish (repeatedly) on all my listings the length and terms of my rentals. Yet, at least one of every three inquiries for my rentals is totally off the mark, asking for stays and/or dates I could not possibly not offer. When I point out that I advertise clearly what is possible, the responses are either 1. I did not see it or 2. yes, but I thought you would make an exception for me. So I do think you should publish your “exceptions” but no I don’t think it will make much of a difference. Our “me, me, me” society will dismiss your most pointed comments.