Sunday, January 22, 2006

THIS EXCITING FREE OFFER FOR - SOMEONE ELSE

When Pat Johnson of Tustin, Calif., got a notice in the mail offering a free companion airline ticket if she put $250 on her Bank of America credit card, it sounded like a great opportunity. She was about to pay a $300 veterinary bill with her Discover card, but decided to use her Bank of America card instead.

Then she read the form more closely and realized that the offer was intended not for her but for her granddaughter, who is living with her while attending a nearby university. She called Bank of America to see if she could get the same offer with her own card, but was told that she wasn't eligible for it.

"Could I have my granddaughter pay the veterinarian's bill with her card to get the free airfare," she wondered, "and then I would pay her back?"

Her granddaughter agreed to pay the veterinarian's bill with her card, but Johnson was still stewing over the rights and wrongs of the situation. Eventually, though she thought that getting a free airline ticket "would bevery nice," she decided not to do it.

For Johnson, the whole decision boiled down to one question: Would it be unethical to take advantage of an offer intended for her granddaughter and not for her? She wasn't sure, so she passed up the offer.

It's not uncommon for people to be exposed to attractive offers or opportunities that weren't intended for them. Often it's inappropriate for them to take advantage of those opportunities.

If, for example, a local newspaper's theater reviewer is invited to a preshow gathering for an upcoming play, it would be inappropriate for her to send her teenage son in her place, even if the son happens to be an enormous fan of one of the actors who will be at the gathering.

The reviewer might reasonably transfer the invitation to a newspaper colleague who also covers theater, however. The invitation was extended because of her professional standing, and someone of equivalent standing would be a reasonable substitute. Transferring the offer to a family member who lacked such standing would clearly be inappropriate, however.

In this particular instance, the offer to Johnson's granddaughter was conditioned only on the granddaughter's spending $250 with her credit card.There was no stipulation about what she should spend it on or who would pay for the charge when the bill came due. Credit-card companies generally don't care who pays the bills, as long as they get paid.

Therefore, assuming that the airline placed no restriction on who could be issued the purchased ticket or free companion ticket, there is nothing wrong with Johnson taking advantage of a creative way to cut down on her travel expenses.

Johnson went the extra mile by calling the credit-card issuer to see if she could get the same offer for using her own card. Even if she hadn't, though, and had gone ahead and worked out an arrangement to put the vet's charge on her granddaughter's credit card so as to get the free ticket, no ethical lapse would have occurred.

When contemplating whether to take advantage of an offer originally intended for someone else, the right thing to do is to weigh whether doing so would violate the intention of the offer and result inmisrepresentation. Johnson should have had no reservation in seizing this opportunity.


Post your reactions here or send your thoughts to: rightthing@nytimes.com. Please include your name and your hometown.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

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