Buyer Beware: Bricks in the Box

There’s a problem in retail circles known as the Brick-in-the-box return. The scam involves taking a legitimate item out of a package and replacing it with something else to fill out the package. The scam then works in one of two ways:

  1. The scammer relies on employee oversight/negligence and re-packs and re-tapes the box so it looks unopened, and returns the item to the retailer by saying they didn’t need it or something similar.
  2. The scammer relies on a con game and tells the customer service agent that he opened the box and found the wrong stuff.

Most famously, this involved bricks replacing VCR’s many, many years ago. This was common enough that a retailer I worked for had a Standard Operating Procedure called “Brick-in-the-Box Returns” that outlined how to handle such situations. It boiled down to one thing: any customer requesting a return because they got the wrong item was denied.

I bring this up because a guy ran afoul of this very scam at Best Buy. You can read all about it at Consumerist, but the nutshell is he bought a hard drive, opened it up, and found six ceramic tiles in the box instead of a hard drive. Classic brick-in-the-box scam.

I think he’s screwed. Every retailer, be it Best Buy, Circuit City, or Toys R Us, has the same policy, and they’re going to assume he’s not the victim but the scammer. Yes, it sucks that someone okayed his return and then a manager overturned it, but that second manager was in the right (by store policy if not general human decency) and if the return had been completed the first employees would have been disciplined. The customer might even be dealing with Best Buy loss prevention and possibly the police if he’d been given his money back, depending upon how far Best Buy would want to take things.

I’ve had three direct experiences with bricks in the box, and these are exactly why the policy is in place.

In the first instance, an elderly man purchased a laptop. When I handed it to him, he asked me to verify if it came with a modem (this was back around ’94, when such things weren’t a given). We opened it up and instead of his shiny new laptop we found an old model that had been painted gray and glued shut. Further investigation of the package revealed the scammer had opened the bottom of the box, did the replacement, then taped the bottom shut and fastened the original tape over the new tape to make it look brand new. Because the unit never left the store and I even opened it for him, we gave him another one. He asked me what would have happened if he had taken it home, and the honest answer was he would be out of luck. I managed to find a return on the same serial number, turned the case over to loss prevention, and had to discipline the employee who accepted the return.

In the second instance, a man purchased a 20″ television. He then returned it an hour later, claiming he didn’t need it. As the warehouse associates unloaded it from his car, the bottom of the box fell apart. There was a different television inside. We found the box had been glued shut, and the glue hadn’t dried yet. We went round and round with this guy for two hours, and it was ultimately turned over to loss prevention. Someone along the line must have put a scare into him, because the next day he picked up the old television and I had to ring up a sale (I forget if he kept the television or had to pay a restocking fee). I was to take the cash and then refund his original credit card, and he asked if the transactions would show up on the credit card statement. I told him of course — he’d see a purchase and a refund. He grunted and walked out. We speculated that meant his wife would find out about it.

In the third instance, a man purchased a video camera. I just happened to be there when he purchased it and happened to be the one to hand it over at the customer service counter. An hour later he returned, claiming it had the wrong item in the box. The camera in the box, however, was much older and much bigger, and didn’t even fit in the packaging. He didn’t repack it, he just demanded a refund. He screamed and yelled and made vague threats, and there was even an elderly woman in earshot telling us we were mean and we should give him his money back. The store manager and I held our ground because I was sure he was full of it. He took the box and went home, and we put a comment on his ticket in our system to warn other stores of the situation. The next morning, someone called claiming to be the guy’s lawyer and threatened lawsuits against me personally and against the store. I referred him to our corporate office. I happened to be working open to close that day, and that evening I got a call from another of our stores. The guy was there trying to return a product, the customer service associate saw the comment on the receipt, and the manager called me. She was confused because the camera she found in the box matched the packaging, and the serial numbers on the box and in the system (entered at checkout) matched the camera. She described the camera, and it was definitely not the one he’d tried to return to us. She went ahead and accepted the return (with a 15% restocking fee) and told him “hi” for me.

In the first case the store lost, in the second two we prevented a loss. All three cases are exactly why the policy exists, and exactly why I think this guy’s going to eat $300. Don’t get me wrong, I feel for the guy and I have no reason to not believe him. I’ll just be surprised if he gets his money back.

If you’re buying a high-dollar item this Christmas, I strongly recommend you open the box and inspect the contents before you leave the store. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is an ideal time for these scams to go down because employees will be less likely to take the time to inspect returned packages.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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