Not long after her 80th birthday last March, Patricia DeGeorge, feeling a bit old and depressed, tried to cheer herself up by window shopping at the Northshore Mall in Peabody.
As the Everett woman walked along, a young man stepped in front of her, flashed a big smile, and offered a free sample of skin cream. He said it would help erase her wrinkles.
Minutes later, DeGeorge said, she found herself being fussed over inside the Forever Flawless cosmetics store, her face lathered in cream while she half-listened to a steady stream of too-good-to-be-true promises (”We’ll make you look young again!”) and obvious flattery (“You look beautiful!”).
An hour later, DeGeorge, who lives on a modest pension and Social Security, emerged with a hand-held infrared light for at-home skin care, plus about a dozen boxes of complimentary creams and lotions.
And a receipt for a whopping $9,031.25.
When she got home, DeGeorge, overwhelmed with regret, burst into tears.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ ” said the soft-spoken great-grandmother of six. “I was so mad at myself.”
The next day, DeGeorge said, she attempted to return everything unopened, but was told the store had a strict policy against allowing refunds.
DeGeorge is one of 23 people who have filed consumer complaints with the state attorney general’s office against Forever Flawless since 2016, including seven last year.
Taken together, the 55 pages of complaints depict Forever Flawless ― a Nevada-based company with locally controlled franchises at two malls in Massachusetts ― as aggressively hustling customers into its stores with offers of free products and services, encouraging them to buy products for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, and refusing refunds even when unopened merchandise is returned within a day or two after purchase.
Benito Malool, general manager of the two local franchises, said the complaints, which he disputes, come from a tiny fraction of its more than 10,000 customers since 2016.
The vast majority are “super happy,” he said.
Malool offered to provide “100 customers” to speak on behalf of the store, but he did not follow through after I asked for the names and telephone numbers of a couple of them. But I did find numerous positive reviews online, along with a greater number of critical comments, though none of them could be verified.
“Though it was a little awkward being stopped in the hall, I am glad they did,” one customer wrote in a Google review. “I made a resolution to take better care of myself and Forever Flawless has helped me achieve my goals: fantastic products, fantastic service.”
DeGeorge and many of the others who filed complaints focused on the no-refund policy, saying they were unaware of it at the time of their purchases.
In Massachusetts, a retailer’s no-refund policy must be “clearly disclosed somewhere in the store” to allow customers “a chance to read it before buying [their] product,” according to the state Office of Consumer Affairs.
When I recently made an unannounced visit to the South Shore Plaza store, the policy was posted, albeit somewhat inconspicuously on a cluttered countertop. (I had to ask where it was.) The sign at the Northshore Mall was not on display. After I inquired about it, an employee took the sign out of a spot not visible to customers and placed it on a countertop.
In addition to the signs, sales slips shown to me by half a dozen displeased customers included the words “no refund,” and some customers I spoke with said they signed letters acknowledging sales as “final.”
Still, the no-refund policy at the two local franchises is less generous than the one offered on the Forever Flawless website, which operates separately from franchises. It offers refunds, minus a 25 percent restocking fee, within 14 days of purchase.
Enforcement of the rule on posting signs isn’t exactly the highest priority at the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, which receives thousands of complaints on many subjects annually and is now concentrating on pandemic-related issues, such as evictions and refunds for canceled travel.
The attorney general’s office, which acknowledges it lacks the resources to handle every matter reported to the office, did help mediate on behalf of customers to win four partial refunds and one full refund. Regarding DeGeorge, the office released a statement saying “Our office always does its best to mediate complaints. We regret that this company refused to provide a full refund in this case.”
In other cases, the operators of the two malls where the stores are located intervened to obtain at least partial refunds on behalf of customers, according to those customers. (The mall operators declined comment.)
And in some instances, Forever Flawless relaxed its usual no-refund policy. In DeGeorge’s case, for example, it refunded $2,200 of her $9,000, after a family member made persistent demands. But that partial refund was conditioned on DeGeorge agreeing not to pursue getting more money back, leaving her stuck with a $6,800 hole in her budget for something that sits in a closet.
On its website, Forever Flawless says it specializes in “premium, high-end skin care for personal use at home,” including creams, serums, and masks infused with diamond powder, which it describes as a natural “super-exfoliant.”
The two Forever Flawless mall outlets also sell expensive light devices produced by a company called Elevare Skin, which offers an example of a more liberal refund policy ― it accepts returns of products purchased on its website within seven days. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Malool, in written responses to questions, said his return policy is comparable to what other retailers offer.
“We want to help each customer in the best way we can,” he said. “But also [we] want to keep our return policy the way it is.”
He also said his customers are under no pressure to make purchases.
“We don’t force anyone to buy anything,” he said. “We give them amazing [merchandise] and amazing service.”
Malool disputed DeGeorge’s account of her attempt to return products she bought, saying DeGeorge had opened and used them.
DeGeorge “ask[ed] for a refund after she used” the products she bought, he wrote.
But when I visited DeGeorge at her home, the infrared light certainly looked unopened, tightly wrapped in plastic. It was the one item she was charged for, while the other items were complimentary, according to the sales slip. DeGeorge told me she also never opened any of the free samples.
I sent Malool photos of the light in its packaging, asking for clarification, but he did not respond.
I presented the complaints filed with the attorney general to Joe Dye Culik, a consumer law attorney, who said it seems “ethically and morally wrong to deny a refund to a grandmother who made a mistake and quickly tried to return it.”
“But where do you draw the line in having the state step in to protect people from their own worst impulses?” he asked.
It’s apparent to me that Forever Flawless sometimes takes a “hard sell” approach, which is its prerogative. But denying DeGeorge a refund after she quickly realized her costly mistake seems heartless, and a crummy way to treat customers.