Paper trail? We don’t need no paper trail!

What happened to Barry Frankel?

He’d accumulated $544 in Target gift cards and decided to finally redeem them at a store. “The money was gone,” he says.

Frankel tried to call Target to retrieve the money.

“After being on the phone with customer service reps two hours on Sunday and two hours on Tuesday, they told me to file a police report,” he says. “They were not responsible.”

We’ve had several similar Target cases on the site and in our help forums.

I wanted to help Frankel. There was just one little thing: I needed to see his paper trail — the written correspondence between him and Target.

And it never came.

Every day, roughly 30 percent of incoming cases go into the “Case Dismissed!” file, because there’s no paper trail, and no evidence that the customer has given a company the opportunity to resolve a complaint.

Frankel received the following request from me. I’ve written this so many times that I have it saved as a form letter.

In order to help resolve your dispute, I need to see the paper trail of correspondence between you and the company.

Do you have any emails between you and the company that you could please forward to me?

If you don’t, then I would strongly recommend that you start a paper trail. I can’t get involved in a case unless I have a written record that you’ve tried to fix the issue yourself.

So what happens when people receive this request? With apologies to Alfonso Bedoya and his famous line in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, do 3 out of 10 people really say, “Paper trail? We don’t need no paper trail!”

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The way I see it, they don’t all say it exactly like that. They fall into three major groups:

1. Sorry, I’m a phone person. Some consumers strongly prefer talking to someone. Frankel’s correspondence suggested he didn’t want to write, but preferred to spend four hours on the phone talking to someone. This desire for a real-time resolution suggests the patience of phone people is limited. I may not be able to come up with a resolution in time to make customers like them happy.

2. I don’t want to deal with their form letters. Many people who come to this site for help have an aversion to the form letters they’ll receive from a company when they try to start a paper trail. That’s a fair concern. I dislike the form letters as well, but it’s absolutely necessary to go through all the channels to establish a strong case for an appeal.

3. I’ve done enough. You do something! There’s a subset of customers who have the wrong idea about consumer advocacy. They think my team of advocates sits in an ivory tower, flicking their magic wands at problems and making them disappear. When we ask for the paperwork, they’re incredulous. “I’m not going to do that!” they exclaim.

Does anyone ever get out of the paperwork requirement? Actually, yes. Some businesses — notably wireless, telecom and credit card companies — make it virtually impossible to send an email. They’d rather do everything by phone, which makes it impossible to verify anything. For those customers, we waive the paperwork rule. (But it’s worth keeping a phone log, if possible)

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I don’t know what happened to Frankel, but I suspect he called Target again and either got it to fix the problem or gave up in despair.

Such a shame. I think I could have helped.

Should we have a paperwork requirement for new cases?

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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 check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • sirwired

    I think the written-correspondence requirement is a good one. Consumers are (obviously) going to give you their “side of the story”. To go along with that, there is often (if not always) another side. And sometimes, that “other side” is even reasonable and makes sense. (Or, alternatively, can provide juicy fodder for showing exactly HOW wrong the company is!)

    If you don’t require consumes to show at least some evidence they’ve TRIED to get a reasonable explanation/resolution out of the company (and not gotten one), you are going to end up with even MORE cases where the consumer has done something bone-headed and/or is completely in the wrong and has conveniently “forgotten” to tell you about it.

    For instance, in this case, imagine some luckless PR rep deep in the bowels of Target HQ. “Dammit! Another gift card caper from that Chris Elliott guy! The last two turned out to be a consumer buying gift cards at a discount off eBay that originally came from shoplifting scams/stolen credit card numbers. And in both cases we TOLD the consumer that we aren’t bailing them out of receiving stolen merchandise, but they “forgot” to tell Chris this. Well, I’m not wasting my time on a third!” *clicks “Send to Trash”*

    I have no idea how often such a scenario happens to you, but I imagine it’s immeasurably frustrating on both sides every time.


    Paper trails are important and pretty easy to establish for many companies these days–with the exceptions you mentioned. (And probably a few others as well.)
    I would like to have known the resolution of this case–simply based on the odd total amount of the gift cards he had accumulated. $544 is an odd amount. The OP did not mention having partially used one of the cards before. As in sirwired’s comment, it would be interesting to know how he got these gift cards in such an unusual amount.

  • JenniferFinger

    I think it’s fair to ask for some evidence that the consumers tried to resolve their issues themselves through appropriate channels before you take on the case.

  • MarkKelling

    Many times Target will give a gift card for store credit for a returned item instead of a cash refund (like when you take a gift back and you were not the original purchaser). I feel that this is how the odd amount accumulated.

  • This is why when you need to invoke Customer Service at a company, always use the online chat option if there is one. You generally get faster service and a better class of representative than on the phone, and you can copy/paste the conversation to add to your paper trail.

  • KennyG

    And in addition, in many of the “chat boxes” you have an option to check off a box or click on something that will email you a copy of the transcript as well, coming from the companies email account, providing further evidence that the consumer didnt simply make up a conversation in NotePad or some other text creation program.

  • KennyG

    Before you get involved, even if only to protect your reputation, you should expect [perhaps require is too strong a word since there may be some circumstances where it is not possible] the consumer to have already taken some documented action on their own. Even the most honest of us still see things through our own eyes, and often the “truth” lies somewhere in between what the consumer tells you and what the “offending” company may have already done to resolve the issue.

  • Ward Chartier

    Self-reliance is a life skill. Exercise it. Grow it. Use it. There are time we need expert help. If we want the experts to help us, they will be much more inclined to do so if we are able to demonstrate what we have already tried. Throwing a problem into somebody else’s lap while saying, “You fix it!” Isn’t useful.

  • Pat

    I agree with what you said. Especially since it gift card related. I would want to know if it someone used the card (including if it was in store purchase or an online purchase) or if Target zeroed it out for fraud. If I had to make a guess, they consolidated multiple cards into one card and one of the cards was purchased by someone using a stolen credit card or some other type of fraud. As was know from the past topics, retailers will zero out the whole card if that is the case.

  • sirwired

    The most common result I’ve had with using the chat boxes is “Please call us at 800-USE-LESS to resolve your issue.”

    That said, you sometimes do get resolution, and other times something nice and quotable to beat them over the head with later.

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