LUBBOCK, Texas - Santa might want to check his list more than twice this year because retailers are making returning items more difficult.
An increase in return fraud has prompted stores throughout the nation to tighten return restrictions and to electronically monitor returns.
"It's a growing problem," said Chuck Courtney, the president of the Texas Retailers Association. "During Christmas, when retailers are so busy, it's more difficult to track."
Return fraud is when someone tries to return a purchase that was never made, according to the Georgia Retail Association. Retail consultant Pat Dunne, who says merchandise return is probably the most widely abused service by American consumers, estimated that return fraud costs the nation's retailers between $12 billion to $30 billion a year.
The problem occurs year-round but escalates during the holidays, particularly the practice of "renting" items - shoplifting and returning items for cash.
"Fraudulent behavior - it picks up in direct proportion to retail sales," Mr. Dunne said.
Some thieves will go to great lengths, Mr. Dunne and Mr. Courtney agreed. In addition to attempting to return a stolen item for a cash refund, criminals will carefully copy receipts or switch UPC codes on items.
To protect themselves from return fraud, several stores require receipts and original packaging with items customers try to bring back.
"As the years have gone by, you've had to add more and more to what you require the customer to return," said Tony Cardinal, the owner of Cardinal's Sports Center, a three-store chain.
He requires customers to make returns in a reasonable time period and also requires a receipt and the item's original packaging.
He said the measures have cut down on return fraud.
"If they don't have a receipt they can't have cash," he said. "If a product is defective, that's a whole different story."
Other stores are electronically tracking returns each customer make to spot people who may be making excessive returns. Those who do can be cut off or subject to additional return restrictions.
Mr. Cardinal said he is bothered that dishonest customers have made returns more difficult.
"If we have an individual who returns a lot of items, we will eventually step in and look at their account," he said. "If they're legitimate returns, that's just part of customer service."