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?

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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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