A Different Kind of Textbook Debt

Renting textbooks is a popular option for frugal students, but one company has for years -- and without notice -- erroneously sent students to collection agencies, in some cases demanding hundreds of dollars in replacement fees.

November 19, 2015

Months after being acquired by Follett, campus store operator Neebo is still sending students to collection agencies over textbooks the students say they have already returned.

Neebo, formerly of a division of the Nebraska Book Company, was acquired by Follett in June, adding the company’s roughly 200 campus stores to its network. But Follett also acquired lingering customer service issues.

One of the most recent examples comes from a student at DePaul University, who says he rented a book from Neebo eight months ago and returned it weeks before the May 29 deadline. In late October, after five months of silence, he received an email from Palmer, Reifler & Associates, a law firm that specializes in civil recovery, which was out to collect a $150.79 debt on behalf of Neebo.

The student said he contacted Neebo for support and was told he needed produce the tracking number showing he had returned the book to avoid having to pay the replacement fee. “Without a tracking number, I was out of luck,” the student said in an email, adding that he is contesting the fee before paying the collection agency.

The student, who asked that his name not be used in this article, on Monday vented about the experience in a post on Reddit. The comment section soon filled up with anecdotes from students who have found themselves in similar situations.

“If I honestly forgot to return this textbook I would have paid it immediately, but to consistently pull this sort of tactic on broke college students is disgusting in my opinion,” the DePaul student said in the email.

In an email, Elio DiStaola, director of enterprise communications for Follett, acknowledged that “outstanding rentals were definitely a known issue and liability” with Neebo, and that it was “clear [the company’s] check-in process wasn't quite ‘refined.’”

While he couldn’t speak about Neebo’s past practices, DiStaola said Follett’s rental operation “has several layers of technology and reminders to avoid situations like those noted in the referenced Reddit thread. … Speaking to transitions -- today, we’re all Follett stores -- and students, faculty and communities can expect our rental program and its deep value when shopping at these former Neebo locations.”

Laura Massie, a spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores, said the troubles some Neebo customers have run into are not typically what the organization sees at campus bookstores.

“Campus stores do run into return issues, but they tend to be resolved more quickly and amicably because the campus store has other ways to reach students and work things out,” Massie said in an email. She also reminded students to keep track of where they shop for course materials: “Unless they purchase everything from the same source, students sometimes forget which books they rented and which books they bought and from where.”

A spokesperson for a different textbook provider, speaking on background, also described Neebo’s actions as “out of the ordinary.”

“Seems they have bad process in their returns and perhaps a mistrust of the student,” the spokesman said in an email.

Students who choose to rent their textbooks rather than buy them normally do so for a simple reason: to save money. In a cruel irony, that frugal decision could cost students more than the price of buying the book and, unless the issue with the collection agency is resolved, damage their credit.

According to customer complaints and social media posts, Neebo has been aware of the issue for years. The Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit organization that accredits companies and offers dispute resolution services, has mediated in a number of cases similar to the DePaul student’s. In some cases, Neebo offered a refund as a one-time courtesy but said the students could not show proof of delivery or that the books came back damaged. In others, it offered a full refund and an apology.

Neebo acknowledged that students were wrongly receiving notices from collection agencies back in August 2012.

“We've come to realize that a few of you who returned your rentals somehow made it on our ‘naughty list,’” the company wrote on Facebook, saying it would look into each notice. “If we find an error, we will quickly get it corrected. Most important, we want to let you know we have not reported these notices to credit bureaus -- we will get it fixed on our end first.”

Like the one on Reddit, the Facebook post attracted comments from dozens of other students whose returns or purchases were incorrectly processed.

“Getting hit with penalties when you shouldn’t is aggravating,” the post reads. “It’s something we don’t do -- and never will do.”


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