Undercharged for an item or service? Why you need to fess up

While it may seem like a fortuitous turn of events, ethically and, in some cases, legally, financial errors made in your favor shouldn't be accepted and can, in fact, be considered theft. Instances of banks erroneously depositing large amounts of money in consumers' accounts, for example, did not result in early retirements on a tropical island for the consumers. Or when a staff member accidentally gets paid at the CEO rate instead of the Lowly Line Worker rate, they have had to give the money back. While disappointing, most people understand why that "found" money has to be returned.

But things get a little blurrier when it comes to less dollar-intensive purchases at a grocery or department store. Consumers often rationalize the error as if it was a Monopoly maneuver: "Bank error in your favor! Collect $75!"
The Consumerist recently posted a question from a reader who called themselves "M" who was charged only $6.83 for a pair of backpacking boots that were actually on sale for $150. The site included a poll that asked readers what M should do. A majority of respondents urged M to "Get on with life" instead of going back to apprise the cashier of her error, and pay the correct amount. Given a far less lucrative example at The Simple Dollar, however -- an incorrect scan on a produce item resulting in a few dollars' difference -- commenters pointed out that if you would call attention to an incorrect price that was too high, you should also point out when a price was too low.

Of course, there are all sorts of rationalizations one can use to justify keeping an erroneous undercharging to themselves. Here are four of the most-often used lines of reasoning:

"Maybe they meant to undercharge me"
Because of an earlier mistake by the business (a hassle with looking up the price, for instance, or a badly-cooked dish at a restaurant), an employee undercharged the consumer on purpose. This could well be true, but as a rationalization it's a bad one; unless the owner of the business tells you personally that the new price is intentional, or if you'd asked for it as compensation directly, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge price is unethical. Simply because an employee feels you deserve compensation for a bad experience does not make such compensation ethically acceptable.

"It'll all work out in the end"
This is one I've personally been known to employ (and then feel badly about later). On a recent trip to the grocery store, I discovered I was vastly undercharged for one sort of unusual tangerine. But I also realized that I had mis-categorized some "Palestine sweet limes" as "Meyer lemons" -- a difference of a dollar a pound, in the store's favor. It's about even, right? Well, maybe, but it would have been more ethical for me to do my best to get each price right (and better for the store's inventory controls). If it did all work out in the end anyway, well, it wouldn't hurt me, would it?

"They had plenty of chances to charge me"

Say you go to Costco and a cashier doesn't notice the piece of to-be-assembled furniture you've slid onto the bottom shelf of the cart. You get out to the car, load up, and realize the mistake. Well, you came to the checkout stand with the intention of paying for it; and you got through the door, where another employee checked your receipt to make sure you had, indeed, paid for the load. With three or four different employees responsible for charging you, why should it be your job to make sure it's paid for? It's still not o.k., though: even if the employees aren't doing their jobs well, that doesn't make scooting out with a free bookshelf ethically acceptable.

"It's a big company, what does $100 mean to them?"
This rationale is often presented as a personal ethical rule: if it's a little mom & pop store or a smaller chain with good values, by all means, alert the staff to any errors; but if it's a big company with values you question (BP maybe?), keep the change no matter how badly-counted it was. While it is lovely to know your ethics include concern for small business owners, fair prices and legal rules are not graduated based on a company's ethical standing or ability to pay. Otherwise, the system would be in chaos, and really, would you want someone treating you this way? (Jessica just got a bonus: she can afford to pay twice what Abigail can! Besides, Abby is such a nice friend.)

The bottom line is, if you are making a rationalization for your behavior, that's a pretty big signal that you're doing something that's ethically compromised. The same rules should apply no matter how big the error, whether or not you thoroughly enjoyed your shopping trip, if the company treats its employees well or chains them to their cashier's stands, or how great your historical overcharges. The ethics of this are clear, the price should be the same for all customers, and if you're undercharged you should make every effort to right that wrong.
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