Q: I lost my passport recently. I sent an application for a passport renewal to the U.S. Department of State and paid $116. Yesterday, I got a letter back saying that I already had a passport (which I found in the meantime) but that they have already cashed my check.

When I contacted their office, a representative told me they would refund the money. Now they are saying they won't refund me. How can they keep my money if I didn't need to renew?

A: When you lose your passport, you have to report it as lost or stolen to the State Department (travel.state.gov). You can't just apply for a new one. When you do that, the State Department checks to see if you have an active passport. If you do, it sends your application back. But the government also cashes your check and gets to keep your money.

Why? According to Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations 51.51 and 51.55, passport execution fees are nonrefundable. It doesn't matter what an official representative told you; the State Department is going to keep your money.

But something about your case wasn't right. No, it's not that the government can take your money and give you nothing in return (I pay my taxes, so I know what that feels like). It's that someone told you that you could get a refund but was wrong.

I run into this issue all the time. Travel companies and government agencies expect consumers to have read every contract and regulation, which is unreasonable. I checked the State Department website, and I can see how you might think you can order up a new passport and that the government would automatically invalidate your old one. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. The burden should be on the State Department to clearly state the need to first report your passport as lost or stolen before applying for a replacement.

Still, if you want to be an informed consumer, you should read the fine print carefully. That's especially true when you're dealing with a large bureaucracy like the federal government. Leave nothing to chance. You rushed through the process of applying for a replacement passport before ensuring that your passport was indeed lost.

I checked with the State Department. I'm afraid you won't be getting a refund. But the State Department did the next best thing, extending your passport by three years. It's not the solution you wanted, but at least you'll get something for your money. My advice? Keep that passport in a safe place.

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer organization. Contact him at elliott.org/help or chris@elliott.org.