Shoppers may be in for some nasty surprises after Christmas as stores implement increasingly complicated and restrictive return policies, including checking a newly created "blacklist" of "serial returners" before accepting merchandise for a refund.

Some retailers, reportedly including KB Toys, Sports Authority, Express, and Staples have begun using a computer database by The Return Exchange of Irvine, CA, to track customer returns.

Stores swipe the shopper's driver's license each time a return is being made, and if the store-set return limit is exceeded, the customer's tendered return is denied. Most stores' posted policies do not warn shoppers of a cap on frequent returns.

Other stores are using increasingly strict but conventional means to curb returns. Items such as computers, digital cameras, and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, shortened return periods, or no refunds at all. For example:

• Circuit City, which touted eliminating restocking fees three years ago, has reinstituted them for some types of opened items, and they have shortened their holiday return period by three weeks. Their primary in-store return policy sign is now virtually unreadable -- it has small white type printed on a yellow background.

• OfficeMax will not accept returns of opened digital cameras at all.

• Amazon and Buy.com will not take back TVs 27-inches or larger. (Buy.com's "Easy Returns" policy is now over 1350 words long.)

• OfficeDepot.com only offers identical exchanges on laptops, digital cameras and PDAs.

• Best Buy requires computers to be returned within 14 days instead of 30, they are excluded from their holiday policy, and certain items have a 15% restocking fee.

• Target offers no returns without a receipt, but will search their system for one.

"Eventually there will be a customer backlash against retailers that impose overly restrictive return policies, or that deny refunds to honest shoppers erroneously placed on a returns blacklist," said Edgar Dworsky, Founder of Consumer World. "There is also no excuse for retailers to fail to clearly and fully disclose their return policy in advance."

Some retailers relax their regular return deadlines at holiday time by extending the return period into January. Remarkably, in Consumer World's spot check of in-store return policy signage, most of these stores failed to post the terms of their holiday policies. Nonetheless, some chains with generous regular or extended holiday return deadlines include:

• Amazon.com January 31 (for most items shipped 11/01 thru 12/31) • Best Buy January 8 (for camcorders, digital cameras, etc.); Jan. 24 (all other items bought since Nov. 1 except computers, which are not subject to holiday policy)
• Buy.com January 15 (for items ordered 11/15 thru 12/24; exceptions)
• Circuit City January 10 (for items bought since 11/26)
• Costco No deadline (except computers)
• Kohl's No deadline (with receipt)
• OfficeMax 14 days after Christmas (purchases marked "gift" Nov. 15 on)
• Staples No deadline for office supplies. (January 8 for technology and furniture bought since Nov. 14)
• TJ Maxx, Marshalls January 8 (for purchases Oct. 31 - Dec. 8)
• Target 90 days from purchase (some restocking fees; specially marked clearance items only qualify for current sale price)
• Toys R Us 90 days (45 days for electronics)
• Wal-Mart 90 days most items (other items: 15, 30, or 45 days)

Consumer rights vary from state to state with respect to product returns. Generally speaking, a store can set up any return policy it wants, whether it is "all sales final", "merchandise credit only", or "all returns in 30 days". Most states require the policy to be clearly disclosed to the buyer prior to purchase, usually by means of a sign. Some states do not consider a disclosure that only appears on the sales receipt to meet this requirement. It is not unreasonable, however, to require customers to provide a sales slip or gift receipt to establish where and when the item was purchased, and at what price.

Tips for Hassle-Free Returns

To improve your chances of getting a full refund, provide a sales slip or gift receipt, and return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all original packaging material. Returns without a receipt are subject to the retailer's posted return policy, which might result in receiving only a merchandise credit for the lowest price the item has sold for in recent weeks, or possibly no refund or exchange at all.

If the item to be returned is defective, some states, such as Massachusetts, require the store to give the consumer his/her choice of one of the three "R's": repair, replacement or refund, irrespective of the store's posted return policy.

Consumers who have a problem returning a gift, should first contact the store manager or customer service department of the retailer. Some credit cards also offer a "return guarantee" benefit whereby the card issuer will refund your money if a store will not within 90 days of purchase. If a satisfactory resolution is not obtained, then a complaint can be filed with the state Attorney General's office or local consumer agency.