When Is It OK for You to (Legally) Swindle a Business?

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Last month, a user on Reddit's "Lifehacks" forum posted what he called a "salad bar hack." This enterprising grocery shopper found that the packaged blue cheese sold at the store cost more than $14 a pound, so he went over to its self-serve salad bar and filled a container with the blue cheese it offered as a topping. Instead of paying $14 a pound, he got his cheese at the salad bar rate of $4.99 a pound.

It seemed like a great trick for saving money, but reader reaction to the post was largely negative.

"This is a clear case of a morally wrong but legally permissible way to game the system," wrote one user. "The idea of the salad bar is to provide you with salad and toppings. When someone constantly picks out only the most expensive per-pound items and isn't really buying a salad, it just drives the cost up and ruins it for everyone else." Other users echoed that objection, and a few noted examples of their grocery stores raising prices after too many customers used the salad bars to get cheap bacon bits or olives.

We're torn. On the one hand, it's not breaking the rules to use the salad bar in this way, and it helps make up for the fact that you're drastically overpaying for certain cheap items in the salad bar (like romaine lettuce). But the commenters have a good point too: If everyone did stuff like this, grocery stores would either have to raise prices or remove items to make sure they didn't lose money. You're not only hurting a business, you're also potentially hurting your fellow customers in your quest for cheap cheese.

M. Joy Hayes, a professional ethics consultant, agrees that using the salad bar as a way of getting a discount on certain items is ethically questionable.

"I think it's fine to load up on expensive items (like olives) if that's what you actually want to eat for your meal," she says. "Businesspeople tend to price that stuff in. However, if a lot of people use these offers as an opportunity to do some cheap olive shopping, the business may raise prices accordingly or eliminate the salad bar altogether."

Gaming the System the Right Way

So you shouldn't use tricks that are going to hurt other shoppers. But what about strategies that let you get the best of the company without victimizing your fellow consumers?

I decided to talk to Brad Wilson about this. Wilson runs deal site BradsDeals, and he regularly employs all manner of shopping tricks and hacks to get the most out of businesses' offers. We talked to him about one such scheme a few months ago: He bought millions of dollar coins from the government using a rewards credit card, in the process netting himself lifetime platinum status on American Airlines.

In that case, he insists that there were no losers in his scheme -- the credit card company got its transaction fees, the airline got paid for the points, and even the U.S. Mint made money -- it profits on every dollar coin it makes. But in some of his other adventures, he's clearly getting the better of a business.

For instance, at one point in his book "Buy More, Spend Less," Wilson describes a saving scheme he used on now-defunct discount site Half.com.

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At the time, the site was offering a $5-off-$10 discount code, as well as a $5 site credit every time you refer a friend to create an account. Between the code and the credit, he was able to buy more than 300 DVDs essentially for free, only paying the shipping cost of $2.

He wasn't actually referring friends, though: Instead, he just created hundreds of dummy accounts on the site using email addresses he'd created for the purpose. Half.com anticipated this, so it required that each account have a valid credit card number attached to it. But Wilson found a way around that safeguard, too: His bank offered a virtual credit card number generator for security-conscious online shoppers, so he used these automatically generated card numbers to make each account look legitimate.

Clearly, this was not what Half.com had in mind -- it was willing to give a small discount if it meant bringing in new customers, but Wilson exploited a loophole to gain the discount without bringing any benefit to the company. In fact, after eBay bought Half.com, it caught on to his exploits and shut down his accounts for "gross coupon abuse."

Wilson says that these days, he tends to steer clear of these more "aggressive" tactics. But he says he's generally okay with employing these tricks against big businesses.

"Very aggressive means are being used against us, and you have to decide what that means to you, and how you want to compete in the marketplace," he says. "We as consumers are Davids against many for-profit Goliaths that are trying to prevail in individual interactions with us."

In other words: Companies are always trying to take advantage of you, so why shouldn't you try to give them a taste of their own medicine?

That's a notion we're generally on board with -- retailers get away with all sorts of tricks of their own, from ambiguous fine print to questionable data collection practices. Still, before you declare total war on the corporate world, we think there are some general guidelines you should follow in your savings adventures.

Don't break the rules. This might go without saying, but stay within the letter of the law and the rules of the store. If a coupon clearly excludes certain products, don't harass some put-upon cashier into accepting it. The last thing you want is for someone to lose their job because you pressured them into breaking the rules for you.

The bigger the company, the more leeway you have ... That doesn't mean it's okay to game a company just because it's big. But messing with a small business's already-thin profit margins is a lot different than taking advantage of a coupon loophole at multibillion-dollar retail chain. The big guy is better equipped to deal with your shenanigans.

... But only do it to companies that have it coming. Wilson's right: Many companies use very aggressive tactics against consumers, and we have the right to fight back. If a retailer is loading its coupons with deceptive language and endless fine print, it's setting up an adversarial relationship with the consumer and you're justified in trying to find the loopholes. But not every big business takes this approach, and if a company is generally consumer-friendly and transparent, it should be treated more respectfully. Reward the good guys.

The more effort it takes, the more questionable the tactic. Using a phony email address to grab a $5 referral discount isn't the end of the world; doing it three hundred times is a bit much. If your adventure in frugality starts to resemble the plot of "The Italian Job," you might reconsider whether your tactics are going too far.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.