It’s easy to get ripped off by unscrupulous car dealers, anonymous robocallers, and other fraudsters. It’s much harder to get your money back.

But there are solutions for victims seeking refunds, says Inquirer consumer reporter Christian Hetrick, who writes below of three local citizens who were collectively bamboozled out of $10,000-plus, but got their money returned after taking action. Their stories, and tips from experts, show how buyers can prevail in sticky consumer disputes. Meantime, if you need help resolving your own consumer nightmare, email Christian at chetrick@philly.com.

Editor

Family help

Connie Patrick of Feasterville just wanted a $250 pair of refrigerator drawers when she gave her Citibank credit card number to Repairs R Us, a local appliance-repair company.

Instead of sending the drawers — which never came — Repairs R Us charged her card $4,650 in four transactions.

Thus began Patrick’s six-month saga to get a refund from Repairs R Us, which claimed that it sold Patrick a maintenance plan, yet acknowledged they never provided her with a written contract or receipt for it.

With help from her family, Patrick contacted just about anyone who might help: Citibank, law enforcement, lawmakers, and The Inquirer, among others.

“It was a group effort,” said Patrick’s daughter, Linda DiGiulio.

After The Inquirer published a story about Patrick’s case, DiGiulio emailed the article to Citibank, which had initially ruled that two of the credit-card charges were valid. A few months later, though, the bank returned all of her mother’s money.

“I just kept calling this guy in the corporate office,” DiGiulio said of her persistent efforts. “I’m happy for my mom, but I’m still mad the system doesn’t go after people like this.”

Lonely hearts club

Chester Springs resident Mary Kane, 85, craved companionship after her husband died. So last year she contacted Philadelphia Singles, a matchmaking service whose representatives said they had wonderful men in mind for her. The King of Prussia firm’s fee was $7,000.

When she balked at the cost, Kane said, the fee was reduced to $4,750 and she was pressured into signing the contract. Ultimately, the company offered only one potential match, who didn’t meet her requested criteria.

What Kane didn’t know was that Philadelphia Singles and its affiliates had already been accused of bad business practices by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and consumers who filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

Mary Kane, an 85-year-old widow, who lives in Chester Springs, paid $4,750 to join Philadelphia Singles, a matchmaking company.
ERIN BLEWETT
Mary Kane, an 85-year-old widow, who lives in Chester Springs, paid $4,750 to join Philadelphia Singles, a matchmaking company.

Kane received a full refund after The Inquirer asked the company’s lawyer about her case.

The fact that [The Inquirer] talked to the lawyer made all the difference,” Kane said. “I couldn’t believe the series of events that led me to get my money back. I was overwhelmed with relief.”

She advises consumers to research a business before handing over their credit cards.

Poor phone service

When retired professor Bonnie Parkhouse, 68, visited a Wireless Zone store in New Britain seeking a case for her bare-bones flip phone, she says, a salesperson claimed that the phone wouldn’t work once her provider, Verizon, phased out its 3G network in a few months. Parkhouse didn’t want a smartphone, but says was talked into paying $668 for a Samsung Galaxy S6.

Except the flip phone she had, a Kyocera Cadence LTE, runs on Verizon’s 4G LTE network and wouldn’t be affected when 3G shuts down at the end of this year. What’s more, she learned, the Galaxy S6 she purchased is a three-year-old smartphone model that is no longer sold on Verizon’s website.

Parkhouse spent two weeks trying, unsuccessfully, to return the Galaxy S6 smartphone. Hours after The Inquirer asked Wireless Zone about her case, the store’s owner offered Parkhouse a full refund.

Advice for the rest of us

If you’re seeking a refund, Adam Garber, consumer watchdog for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), has these suggestions:

1. Reach out to government agencies for assistance: The Pennsylvania attorney general, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, FTC and, sometimes, even elected officials can help resolve consumer issues by ensuring that a company’s practice is in line with the law and — if it’s not — pushing for appropriate action.

2. Go straight to the source: If your complaint is with a large company, it may have a consumer ombudsmen whose job is to help. But don’t be afraid of going up the chain of command. Some consumers have had surprising luck in directly emailing a company’s CEO, whose representatives quickly resolve the complaint because it’s less complicated than untangling it.

3. Publicity: When some companies get bad publicity — whether by complaints on social media (tweets and such) or in negative reviews on sites like Yelp — they’ll agree to resolve an issue, even a small one. Be polite in criticism, clearly articulate the problem and call for a fix. Similarly, try reaching out to traditional media outlets including TV consumer reporters (or your favorite Inquirer journalist).

4. Professional watchdogs: A number of groups help mediate consumer disputes and can help determine whether a law was broken. Reach out to U.S. PIRG , the Better Business Bureau or local service and community organizations.

5. Lawyers: Many attorneys are glad to take on consumer complaints via targeted letters or more involved legal action. For guidance, consult the National Association of Consumer Advocates, whose directory includes local lawyers who address consumer protection issues.

In other words, recommends Garber, take action.

“At the end of the day," he says, “some companies may decide it’s better to make a consumer whole by addressing the problem than letting it fester.”