My Purchase Rang Up Wrong! Could the Law Be on My Side?

by Linsey Knerl on 27 August 2008 13 comments

Whether you coupon, frequent the sales, or just like to keep your eye out for everyday low pricing, most of us are very aware of what we pay for our purchases. As the economy continues to worry shoppers, we will become increasingly more conscious of the prices we pay for everyday items (toiletries, food, and medicines) as well as the big-ticket ones.

Despite our best intentions, however, pricing errors do occur. Whether you get overcharged for an item, pay for more than one of something, or simply find a discrepancy between the shelf price and the scanned price, there are some very important tips you need to know about.

Federal law protects consumers. While it has been awhile since the last Price Check report conducted by the Staff of the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, it shows that the federal government has improper pricing and scanning on their radar. Weight and Measures officials tracked the accuracy of price scanners and register pricing in over 35 states to get the results revealed in the report. Pricing errors occurred more often in sale-priced items, and overcharges were slightly less common than instances of not charging enough. (Surprising, isn’t it?) The consequences for pricing errors can be a burden; In addition to lost revenue by not charging a customer enough (which is usually remedied less often than when a customer is overcharged), stores who display high numbers of pricing errors are subject to substantial fines or administrative and judicial orders.

State and local ordinances can remedy the problem. Once you have realized that you were incorrectly charged for your purchase, there are actions you can take to get your money back. At the time the study was released, not all states participated in the NCWM Procedure (which sets forth a method of sampling and verification for proper pricing and register scans.) States like Michigan, however, take the role of consumer advocate one step further. Their remedy (the Scanner Law) offers the following to overcharged customers:

  • If a customer is charged more at the register than the item is marked, they may get back the difference plus 10 times the difference (up to $5) as a bonus. The bonus is only available if the purchase is completed; pricing errors that get corrected at the register and don’t result in overpayment are not eligible.
  • Customers do not have to try to remedy the charges in store during their visit. Consumers have up to 30 days to ask for their money and bonus, and can do so with proper documentation via mail. The seller has two days to give your money back, and must do so in legal tender (cash), not gift certificates or store credit.
  • If the seller refuses to pay the difference and the bonus, actual damages or $250 may be sought (whichever is greater) plus attorney’s fees up to $300.
  • Multiple pricing errors on the same order will be honored by payment of the difference on all items, but only one bonus per order will be given.
  • Certain items do not have to be marked. These can include vending machine products, items sold by weight that are not prepackaged, live animals, packages of 20 or fewer cigarettes, and greeting cards that have a readable coded price on the back of the card.

(Note: This is an example of the Scanner Law in the state of Michigan. To get the full details of your own state or local jurisdiction, please contact your local attorney general.)

This article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer explains a recent audit for Ohio retailers and their rate of accuracy in pricing (a very interesting read.) While it reports that pricing errors are fairly uncommon, I may have to take issue. (For those of us who regularly watch sale pricing, request ad matches, and coupon, the rate of error increases dramatically. Plus, I think that we are more inclined to watch for pricing errors and would be more likely to catch one if it did occur.)

Do you know the pricing law in your state? How have pricing errors affected you in terms of time and money? Has recent pricing errors caused you to change your shopping habits (i.e. choose the self-scanning register, shop online, etc.)?

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Guest's picture

how does this affect gas pricing?
i've noticed several times that the price on the pump (and thus the price paid) differs from the price advertised on the marquee. seems like the stations can be slack in changing the prices at times when there is an increase in prices.
when asking employees about it they more often than not shrug their shoulders and say sorry - can't do anything about it.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I'm afraid that gasoline may not have to follow these guidelines.  While I may be wrong, it seems that gasoline is sold by volume and not pre-packaged, so it wouldn't be covered under the Michigan Scanner Law.  Also, gasoline in itself may follow a completely different guideline.  In Michigan, there is also another exemption

"

In addition, each store is entitled to exempt 50 classes of items from being item priced - 25 classes of sale items and 25 classes of non-sale items.  A list of the non-sale exempted items must be posted in a conspicuous place.  MCL 445.353(3).  The price of the non-sale exempted items must also be posted by a conspicuous sign located in immediate conjunction to the area where the unmarked items are displayed.  MCL 445.353(4). "

I would definitely check with your local Attorney General's office to get details on any concerns you have regarding the pricing and purchasing of fuel.

Thanks! 

 

Guest's picture

Great insight for consumers who need to be in the know. It so true for people who work hard to find the discounts and coupons in order to stay within their budgets only to be taken for a ride by the store.

People need to realize it's their money that's being messed with and they need to speak up and exercise thier rights, no matter how small the matter may seem. It's the pinciple of the thing that should matter - as well as the importance of saving your own hard-earned money.

Thanks for the post!

Guest's picture
Anna_esq

Borrow "Gotcha Capitalism" by Bob Sullivan from your library for an excellent expose on overcharges (and other hidden ripoffs ranging from cell phone fees to bank fees) and what you can do to avoid them (or get your money back). Also visit your state Attorney General's website and familiarize yourself with your states consumer protection statute.

According to our county weights and measures guy, gas stations and other stores subject to "weighing and measuring" (such as the scale in your stores deli department) tend to err on the side of slightly undercharging consumers in our area (i.e., you make out a tenth of a penny or so). However, he says the only reason they do this (err on the side of the customer) is because his department vigorously tests and prosecutes cheats. He said the moment they relax enforcement, it's open season on the customers.

Scanner pricing at stores is a different story. 4 times out of 10 the scanners don't work, and 1 out of every 30 items you purchase is mis-priced, usually in the stores favor. Most scanners are far away and usually the label printers don't work. Worse, items are often placed in a confusing manner on the shelves so you have no idea which item costs what. Although they're supposed refund you 10x the price, most won't (or have a posted policy such as "you get it free" which is only 1x the price for those rare occasions a sharp-eyed shopper catches the error -AND- can prove it was mislabelled). Very few customers follow through with prosecution, so it's in the stores interest to mislabel. Sullivan estimates pricing errors costs consumers billions of dollars per year. When shopping, caveat emptor!!!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Anna,

You make an interesting point. I will have to check out the book. I would also like to clarify that some people have insisted that the store HAS to give you the product for free. They don't. They only have to give you the difference and a bonus of ten times the "difference" in what they charged and what it really cost. So for some people, getting a free item would actually be worth more than the legal remedy of 10 x the difference. (plus there is a cap in some states of a bonus of no more than $5.) I believe that Walmart used to get you the item for free, but many stores are not doing this due to fraud. Thanks for the comments!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Mike Q.

I want to start by saying that I honestly do not know the law in any detail, but I am an associate at my local WalMart and I can tell you that we honestly try to keep the signage in-store/out-store ads matching our computers at all times. Any pricing error can be quickly fixed right at the register and the cashier should be able to easily do it, though they may need to acquire a supervisor's permission or a price check first.

The 6x or 10x law I am not aware of, or at least I don't think Utah has this in effect. Firstly, people make errors. Most of the floor staff has access to change the prices of items in the store, and adding a law where such losses would be acquired for an error would mean the store would need to crack down on these errors much more aggressively in order to maintain profit. This would entail a much higher rate of job loss. Also, if you understand how the WalMart system works, you would know that the losses due to such a law (and any fraud situation or price changes that are not correct) are taken from the employee bonus. A 6x or 10x law would not affect the corporate WalMart, but would eat at the cashiers, and floor associates bonus money.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, any extra money WalMart has that it should not, and is not claimed by the customer, policy requires that it be donated to charity. We cant keep it in way for any reason. Extra, goes to charity outside of WalMart, period.

And finally, like cigarette advertising laws, there is a difference between public ads and marketing, and private. If a price is printed in our weekly ads that are mailed to your home, or in a newspaper, on radio, or visible from the street, the law requires we honor these prices. However, in our store, the prices are not displayed publicly. All store properties are private, and major pricing errors will not be honored. I have personally fought with a woman about the pricing on a laptop computer which rang up for $1398.97 but the sign in the store stated $599. We ended up watching security camera tapes and found that the woman herself was changing our signs, and then threatening us with lawsuits for breaking the law about marked prices.

Don't get me wrong, were talking about huge pricing errors and fraud that would seriously hurt us. Small errors happen constantly and I cannot say that I am above them. I did it to some sale items just last week, fixed about half of them, but each style has a different UPC code, so I missed some of the flavors and they continued to ring at the non-sale price.

I don't represent the entire company but at WalMart, we correct our own errors and just ask you to be patient while we fix the problem. We all have our own budget to follow and we honestly don't want you to be hurt by pricing errors anymore than we do.

Linsey Knerl's picture

It's good to hear Walmart's side of things (or at least yours.)

:)  Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Guest

About 3 weeks ago I went to Taco Bell and bought me a grilled stuffed burrito (not the combo). It as around $3.56. I don't remember the exact amount but it did not go over $3.60.

When I checked my credit card statement, I saw that I was charged even $9.00. I didn't do anything about it though and I do not have the receipt to prove it. Who keeps their taco bell reciepts?

Guest's picture
Guest

Well, you may think it's all well and good that you get an item for free, or 10x the difference of the error, or $5, but that's not even close to fair for what happens to you if you cheat the store.

If the store intentionally cheats a person, they get a fine which won't put them out of business, especially a large chain store with deep pockets. But what about the case above where the woman switched prices on the laptop? You can bet she got arrested and charged with a crime.

And what about gas stations? If they purposely overcharge you (I call that stealing), they get a fine, but they are still in business. Just try stealing even 1.00 worth of gas from them and you lose your driver's license.

How is that fair?

I say we need to take away the business license for any gas station caught overcharging even one person. Give them a six month suspension, remind them that owning a retail store is a privilige not a right, and make them pay a reinstatement fee to get their business license back.

But no, the powerful lobbyists have persuaded our lawmakers that the consumer is to be punished for each and every infraction against them while they stand protected against any wrongdoings they commit themselves.

Linsey Knerl's picture

That where I live, first offense shoplifting is a class 2 misdemeanor (if you have no priors), which is punishable by up to 6 months and/or $1,000. I have rarely heard of any first-time offenders getting much more than probation, however. I agree that stores should be held accountable, but I don't think that any one retail location should get their license taken away over one offense. (With thousands of items being rung up a day, there has to be room for error -- which is no more than 2% in most states.) Many stores honestly forget to update their pricing systems, and the only stores that would really be hurt by such harsh penalties are the smaller, privately owned business.

We should be protected under the law, but we should also be aware of what's going on around us. Know the prices for your purchases, check your receipts, and follow-up accordingly. The law is only as good as those who enforce it and those who demand protection under it.

Good comments.

Guest's picture
larry

i bought a lawn mower at sears it was marked 99.99 at register it rang up at 199.99 next day i talked to manager she it was a human error and would not sell it for 99.99 as marked is she wrong

Linsey Knerl's picture

You'll have to check the law in your state.  You should at least be able to return it for a full refund.  Sorry to hear about your bad luck!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
greg battles

I shop at piggly wiggle in henderson, TN. and I have to say 4 out of 10 times I'm over charged on everyday prices. It happens so often that I've thought it's purposeful. Just think of how much money in one day that may be overcharged and people don't don any thing ab out it because It's only .50 or a dollar. To me it seems like a money making scheme meant to defraud the consumer and or the store it self by a manager who may at the end of the day refund the over charges to him self. And on paper it would look like the consumer was refunded the overcharge.