Sunday, July 18, 2010


When his most recent bank statement arrived from J.P. Morgan Chase, T.M., a reader in Ohio, was surprised to find that it did not include a charge of $64.04 for a debit-card purchase he had made, about six weeks earlier, from a large sporting-goods store in the area.

T.M. doesn't recall anything unusual about the transaction, and he had previously used his debit card at the store without having a problem. Years ago, however, he had a similar thing happen to him at a restaurant in the same shopping area as the sporting-goods store.

"It was a large, locally based Italian restaurant with several locations in the Midwest," he writes. "We used to eat there a lot. I don't recall following up with that merchant, but I also don't recall paying for the lunch."

Regardless of his past experience, T.M. wonders what the right thing to do is, given his current situation with the sporting-goods store.

It occurs to T.M. that the absence of the charge might be due to some sort of debit-card promotion - "Use your debit card and your bill is on us!" He acknowledges, however, that Chase would probably have told him if that were the case.

"Other than waiting to see if the charge goes through at some point in the future," T.M. writes, "I'm wondering what I should do - anything?"

While it's always a good feeling to draw a "Bank Error in Your Favor" card, T.M.'s small windfall should not make him feel tingly with delight. The mistake that resulted in the debit-card transaction not registering may well have been the sporting-goods store's, but T.M. knows he made the purchase. He still has whatever it was he bought there and, as of right now, he hasn't paid for it. No matter how you slice it, that's not a situation likely to pass ethical muster.

Some stores have posted policies about mistakes in transactions resulting in favorable outcomes for the customer - for instance, a purchase being free at some restaurants if a cashier doesn't provide you with a receipt, or a supermarket offering customers free items if the scanner rings up the wrong price.

Even so, unless T.M.'s sporting-goods store has a posted policy that it won't charge customers if the debit doesn't show up on their bill within a certain period of time, the right thing is for T.M. to meet his ethical obligation to pay what he knows he owes.

In buying the goods, he undertook to give the store the agreed-upon price. It's good that he attempted to do so, and he can't be faulted for the fact that the electronic transfer somehow went awry, but the end result is that he has not lived up to his agreement. He needs to do so.

If the sporting-goods store had erroneously charged T.M. twice for his purchase, you can bet that he wouldn't hesitate to call the store and/or Chase to see that the mistake was rectified.

T.M. should exercise the same diligence to set things right, even when he does not stand to benefit financially from doing so, and regardless of whether the store will reward him for his honesty.

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

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, I agree that morally he has an obligation to pay but how to do this at this point gets a little messy. Most stores do not have ways of taking these second payments without messing up their accounting procedures. Simply placing the cash in the register without ringing up the transaction means that the cashier would be over at the end of the night and ringing up a false transaction would throw inventory out of whack.

It is still possible that this transaction may still be pending as most such charges remain valid for at least three months. Rectifying it now by paying again may lead to double payments.

The best thing to do is to go in and speak with a manager, if you feel so inclined. In my experience, the manager will thank you for your honesty (they don't get this much) and offer the item "on the house" if the charge never goes through since they don't want the messy transaction.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...