Earlier this year, I wrote about how I got a Seattle supermarket, Albertsons, to refund me 68 cents for wrongly assessing the nation’s highest big-city sales tax, 9.5%, on six two-liter bottles of club soda. Washington State law (and, I think, that of most states) generally exempts unsweetened drinks from the sales tax. As it turned out, the process was pretty easy. I researched the matter on the Washington State Department of Revenue website for about 10 minutes and in an email filed a claim with an Albertsons office, providing citations to the law and a copy of the receipt. The chain quickly coughed up the money, although the telephone rep who called to tell me about the refund almost had a heart attack when I suggested the company should on its own go through its frequent-shopper records and refund the sales tax to everyone who paid it for a fizzy-water purchase. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t done.
Still, if only these things were always this simple. I just finished a second sales tax dispute. But even though it involved a bad product that was purchased and then returned, this tax refund was a lot harder to get. It involved two companies with what I would call less than sterling reputations when it comes to customer service. I actually had to file forms and paperwork with Washington State (under penalty of perjury) to get the sales tax part of the refund.
But arrive it did, in the princely sum of $4.75.
Here’s how this deal went down.
In April, having bought (at Costco) a new desktop computer running Windows 8, I needed some tune-up software. So I went to the sole Washington State outlet, in suburban Renton, of the Fry’s Electronics chain and bought a copy of System Mechanic Premium. The price was $49.99 plus the aforementioned sales tax of $4.75, for a total of $54.74.
To put it bluntly, System Mechanic Premium totally screwed up my new computer, corrupting printing and various other functions. Twice, I uninstalled and re-installed the operating system (taking hours each time), only to watch System Mechanic Premium gum up the works it was supposed to help. I realized that System Mechanic Premium would not be good for me. But I was reassured by the fact that the packaging sported the words “Money Back Guarantee” in a gold seal with no qualifications. I naively assumed I easily could get back all my money, and then go off to try some other product.
The problem began when I returned to Fry’s. I became New To Seattle from California, where Fry’s is headquartered and long has had a reputation for cheap prices and ever cheaper service. (Its 34 superstores are located mainly in the West and Southwest.) In 1997 my colleagues at Forbes wrote at some length about the customer service practices of the company. The headline was “The customer is always right? Not at Fry’s.” Among other points, the article said the company had a refund policy known internally as “the double H,” for the hoops and hurdles put in front of customers who want refunds. Google the company and you’ll find plenty of horror stories.
In my case, a “customer service” rep at the Renton store–there’s a reason why I just used quote marks–told me Fry’s had a policy of no refund on any software once it was used, even if it totally messed up my computer and had been uninstalled. Fry’s wouldn’t even consider giving me a store credit, although over the years (I’m not so sure now about the future) I’ve bought a lot of stuff there. The rep told me to contact the software maker.
The maker of System Mechanic Premium is Iolo Technologies, of Los Angeles. Judging from Internet postings, it, too, has a sketchy reputation on the customer service front. But it stood by its printed “money back guarantee,” right? Well, not exactly. After dealing with its balky customer service Web portal, an online agent (on a chat window) with little authority and a flurry of back-and-forth emails, I was told that if I mailed back the product to Iolo, I would get a refund.
But only of the $49.99 price of the product. Not the $4.75 sales tax.
Now, from where I come from, the price of something is what is paid for it, including sales taxes. In my opinion it is a deceptive trade practice for Iolo (or anyone else) to proclaim in writing an unqualified “money back guarantee” policy without conspicuously stating that guarantee does not apply to that portion of the money paid to cover the sales tax. (In my view Fry’s was just as deceptive for slightly different reasons, but clearly, neither company cares much about its image or reputation.)
Iolo sent me a check for $49.99–no sales tax. I was still out the $4.75 sales tax on a flawed product I had returned and no longer owned. (We won’t talk about the value of my wasted time in pursuing all this.)
What to do? Poking around some more on the Internet, I came across a Washington State Department of Revenue form, REV 41 0105e. It was captioned “Application for Refund or Credit.” Aha! After all, I wanted a refund, and presumably the administration of Gov. Jay Inslee would get its clutches on my hard-earned $4.75 when it was remitted by Fry’s to the state in the regular course of business.
So I filled out the form, as well as Form REV 41 0104e, “Buyer’s Declaration for Refund of Retail Sales Tax,” in which I certified that the seller (Fry’s) wasn’t lifting a finger to help me in this matter. I attached copies of the receipt, the Iolo letter acknowledging my return of the product, and an Iolo email blowing me off on the sales tax refund claim. In my cover note, I wrote that a $4.75 refund from the state “would leave both the Department and myself in the same position financially we would have been in had I not purchased a product with what turned out to be a false ‘Money Back Guarantee.’ ”
I mailed everything off to Olympia. Whatayaknow! A few days later I actually got a telephone call from a Department of Revenue employee saying I would get the refund after processing, but that it would take a couple of months. The state was good to its word; a warrant (as the state calls its checks) for $4.75 just arrived in the mail, signed in all its glory by State Treasurer James L. McIntire.
I invite anyone mentioned or interested in the issues raised here to weigh in below. Meanwhile, having put so much effort into this, I might not cash the warrant at all but get it framed to hang on the wall. Just to remind me every day of Fry’s Electronics and Iolo Technologies.