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Leigh Gallagher
Thinking about returning that reindeer sweater Aunt Sally gave you for Christmas? Think again.

In an effort to crack down on an estimated $16 billion in fraudulent returns, retailers are tightening their return policies, doing everything from shortening the timeframe, charging fees on opened items, or offering store credit only. A growing number of retailers, including Sports Authority and Express, are taking things one step further, investing in sophisticated software to track individual shoppers’ return histories, and then using that information at the counter to determine whether to allow a return.

All of this is permissible, of course; returning is a right, not a privilege. In fact, it’s the retailers who created return policies as a courtesy way back when. It’s not entirely surprising, in a tough sales climate, that they’re starting to crack down.

But for shoppers used to standard or even liberal return policies, being turned away at the counter can be a bit of a shock. Here’s what you need to know before you hit the stores this week.

• Act fast. The one-year or even 90-day return policy is becoming a thing of the past. Many retailers will give a slightly longer grace period over the holidays, but get to the store within 30 days at most, and even earlier with electronics which tend to have shorter windows.

• Don’t open the box. Many electronics retailers have instituted so-called restocking fees, a charge, usually 15-percent of the cost of the item on returns that have been opened. Circuit City, for example, charges a 15-percent fee on returns of digital cameras, personal computers and PDAs if the box has been opened. On a $300 digital camera, that’s $45 just for the right to return.

• Accept credit. For obvious reasons, retailers are more willing to give store credit than cash or a refund. If you can find something else in the store, or if you can use the credit on a later purchase you’d make anyway, it’s as good as a full refund — and you’ll improve your odds.

• Speak up. If you get stonewalled at the counter, ask to speak to the store manager. Retailers don’t want to lose business, especially if you’re a regular customer.

• Keep your receipt. This sounds obvious, but it proves the item wasn’t stolen. Didn’t get one with the reindeer sweater? If you really want to return it, you may have to do away with the niceties and just ask Aunt Sally to mail it to you. Of course, if you simply can’t bear to hurt her feelings, there’s one way to offload it that she’ll never know about: sell it on eBay.

For more consumer tips, tune in to "The Cost of Freedom" business block, Saturday starting at 10am ET.

Leigh Gallagher is a senior writer for SmartMoney magazine and a regular contributor to "Cavuto on Business".