Sunday, June 13, 2010


A reader of the column tells me that she has "a doozy of an ethical question" for me, one which belongs to that touchy ethical category "something for nothing."

Awhile back she signed up for a teacher-rewards card at her local office-supply company. Every few months she receives a reward check, the amount of which is based on how much she has purchased at the store.

During the past year her rewards have grown significantly - but the growth in the amount she's getting is "not from my personal purchases, because I know I am not spending the kind of money to generate the rewards I often get."

She has cashed some of the smaller rewards checks, she writes, since she figures that they are based on her actual purchases. The larger checks have really thrown her, however, and she isn't sure what to do.

"My purse was stolen last year," she writes, "but I cannot think someone who stole my purse is using my card. If this someone is using my card for educator discounts, especially someone who stole my purse, then I feel I have the right to reap the rewards and have the last laugh."

My reader wonders if her school or school district are somehow tied to her personal account, with her getting credit for the institution's purchases.

"If this is the case," she acknowledges, "the district does not have access to its rewards and it's an obvious error."

Since most of her purchases are for her classroom and students, however, she wonders if it is so bad that a teacher might be benefiting from the district's purchases.

She asked the school's budget secretary, who orders school supplies, about the situation.

"She just laughed," my reader reports, "and said, `Good for you if that is happening. At least someone is getting something for all we spend.'"

My reader assumes that, if she asks the store to investigate, it will probably not care and wonder why she cares.

"Or they will cancel my card, issue a new one and no one will get the checks," she adds. "Am I entitled to spend the reward check on an account issued to me, when someone who spends a lot at the store is tied to my account in error? Or is it unethical?"

There are situations in which it's ethical to accept something for nothing, but they're few and far between, and sadly this isn't one of them.

Unless the store is accidentally crediting my reader for purchases that aren't being made, in which case she's being given the store's money by accident, it seems fair to assume that somebody - let's say Buyer X - is making purchases and my reader is getting the credit instead of Buyer X. In either case, someone is being deprived of what's due, and my reader is reaping the benefits.

It doesn't really matter who the loser is, and the budget secretary's cavalier response doesn't get my reader off the hook if it should be the district. It's not the secretary's money, after all, and I doubt that the district has authorized her to write blank checks at will.

My reader wouldn't even consider withdrawing funds that her bank had credited to her account erroneously - at least, I hope she wouldn't - and this is the same thing. The funds are simply being credited to an account at a store, rather than at a bank. Whose they are is unclear, but they aren't hers and she isn't entitled to make use of them.

The right thing for my reader to do is to alert the store about what has been happening. The store's management should care that the appropriate person gets credited for the purchases, and so should my reader. So too should Buyer X, who is making considerable purchases and having the rewards channeled to the account of a complete stranger.

I agree that it seems unlikely that it's the purse thief who is making these purchases. If it is, though, my reader coming clean might help the store use the information to track down the criminal if he or she uses the card in the future.

General rule, though: We all know what's ours and what isn't. If it's not yours, it's rarely ethical to use it for your own advantage.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Patricia Selk said...

Several years ago, a local grocery chain was giving points toward discounts on gasoline purchases. Every receipt showed the discount earned, and I gleefully watched it build to a "worth going to that station" amount. One afternoon, my receipt showed a substantially lower amount than had appeared on the previous receipt, even though I hadn't used the discount yet.

It took some digging, but we found out that there is someone in my city (Richmond, VA) who has my less-than-common name. Our "member" cards had somehow been combined, and we were both being credited for each other's purchases.

None of it was big money, so the total never set off any alarms until the other Patricia Selk used part of the discount. If I had been the one to use the "joint" discount, I expect that she would have made the complaint. It was up to the store to make it right.

In the case of your reader, once she has reported the discrepancy to the store, it is their responsibility to figure out the problem and make it right. Holding onto the checks while the store investigates makes sense. If they tell her to spend it (in the name of good customer relations), and that they'll make sure that the correct account is credited as well, she has a bonus! And if the other Patricia Selk reads this, I'd love to meet her.

Tayvis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tayvis said...

Common sense would dictate that most purse thieves aren't buying school supplies with stolen credit cards.

Since most teachers are underpaid in the first place, the checks should be considered a gift from the void. If your reader is really that concerned, why not place the payments into a separate account. Apparently, the money is not "needed" or they wouldn't be worried in the first place. Allow the money to draw interest until the company realizes its mistake. If they require the money to be returned (which they most likely will not due to their own negligence) your reader will have the full balance on hand.

People often lose sleep over the smallest things. The real issue is criminal intent. Your reader has obviously not arranged her buyer credit fraudulently, so there is no real cost. If it is a case of an account oversight with another individual, then consider it "tax" for their own laziness.

If it is an oversight from your reader's employer it might be wise to follow this up. I once worked a construction job with a man who continually received more money than was due on his weekly paycheck. This went on for a number of months and he never reported the glitch due to his sense of "getting lucky." When the job ended and we received our final pay as part of a layoff, my coworker received a paycheck for $27. When he questioned the office as to why his check was short they explained that they had discovered an oversight and had reimbursed their own account from his severance. No harm, no foul.

It may not be the right thing, but the most convenient thing would be to accept the money and enjoy the fruits of living in cashless society. Then again, I'm sure that my level of "scumbaggery" is quite higher than your average readers.

Bill Jacobson said...

The right thing to do is to contact the store and investigate. Is it possible that she's receiving credit for her student's parent's purchases? Using the funds without investigating is no more right than using money that is mistakenly deposited in your checking account.

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA

ECS said...

OK I am gonna side with the "keep the money" comment. If the inquirer really feels badly about it, open a separate savings account as suggested until all is clear. For crying out loud-- unless this is thousands of dollars it's a minor error in any case. This is NOT like money being deposited into a checking account-- this is a marketing choice by the store-- it is THEIR lookout to get it right!!

When parents break the rules, should other parents report them?

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