Friday, August 04, 2006


Picture yourself on a road trip, driving along the interstate. You pull into a rest area to stretch your legs and use the facilities. Then you stop at a vending machine to purchase a refreshing beverage to quench the thirst you've built up on your long summer drive.

A bottle of water costs $1.25, so you start dropping change into the machine. You're about 60 cents in when you realize that the machine's digital display isn't registering the amount you've deposited. You hit the change-return button several times, with increasing force, to no avail. The machine has eaten your 60 cents.

You spot a rest-area attendant, but she refers you to signs in the vending area proclaiming that attendants are not responsible for the vending machines. Instead there's a stack of mail-in cards you can use to ask for a refund.

The cards are not postage-paid, however. If you mail one as a post card, you'll be out another 24 cents for postage. If you'd prefer to have your home address hidden inside an envelope, it'll run you 39 cents. There is no indication on the card that you should add the cost of postage to the amount you've been shorted.

Let's agree for the moment that it's not OK to put your steel-toed work boot directly through the front of the machine in an effort to jiggle free your lost change. Is it ethical to build into your reimbursement request the price of the postage needed to send the request?This is exactly what K.E. of Columbus, Ohio, wants to know.

He and his girlfriend were driving from Chicago to Columbus a few weekends ago. Right outside Indianapolis, heading east on I-70, they pulled into the rest stop that is home to the change-gobbling vending monster in question.

K.E. believes that the postage should be prepaid for customers who need to use the cards to get a refund.

"If it is not," he writes, "it seems silly to have to pay to get a small amount of money refunded."

So he tacked on 39 cents for postage, rounded up a penny and, having lost 60 cents, asked for a refund of one dollar.

Soon, however, he began wondering if he had done something wrong by tacking on the extra 40 cents for postage.

"The postcard had an ominous `using the mail to commit fraud is a crime' type warning at the bottom," he says. "I feel a little sheepish now, wondering if I was perhaps overly self-righteous in my moral superiority."

Self-righteousness doesn't enter into it -- it's more like understandable frustration -- but yes, technically it was unethical for K.E. to add the extra money for postage, and the extra penny to make an even $1 is even more unjustifiable, though hardly significant in the big scheme of things. By claiming to have lost $1 when he actually lost only 60 cents, K.E. was lying at worst, misleading at best.

Without question, the right thing would be for the vending-machine company to foot the bill for the postage, ideally by providing postage-paid cards. K.E. should not be expected to pay to get back what's rightfully his. But the company is not legally obligated to do so, and it has chosen not to do what both K.E. and I consider to be the right thing.

The right thing for K.E. to do would have been to send the company an itemized bill for 99 cents, citing 60 cents in lost money and 39 cents for the cost of postage. Ideally the company would remit the full amount. If it didn't, however, K.E. would at least have the consolation of not having let 40 cents get in the way of the truth -- and a good reason to avoid that company's vending machines thereafter.


yawningdog said...

I think I would have put 60 cents and 39 for the postage. That is exactly what he lost in that transaction.

I believe the fraud warning is for people who fill out the card and never stuck any money into the machine.

The cards require postage for the same reason - to discourage people from sending them in without cause.

I bet he gets his dollar back.

Anonymous said...

I live near Robbins, in rural NC, and read your
columns in The Charlotte Observer.

I realize my comments have nothing to do with getting
a refund from a vending machine, but I have to say:

1. Who pays $1.25 for a bottle of water? I'd be
willing to bet $1.25 that there was a public water
fountain at that rest stop. Remember, "Evian" spelled
backward is "Naive."

2. Who takes a road trip without carrying along a
small cooler with ice, beverages, and snacks? I
learned many years ago that this is FAR preferable and
more convenient than having to stop and buy stuff
along the way (usually at ridiculously inflated

If the person in your column had done that, we
wouldn't be having this discussion. (Of course, you
wouldn't have had a column topic either, but that's
your problem, not mine.)

I am often amazed at how much money people waste.

GB in NC

Anonymous said...

If I try to get the money back, then I will expend way more energy than it is worth. If the error had been in my direction, there may have equally been no reasonable way to return the money. (I do not consider handing money to whoever is working nearby to be reasonable, since vending machines operators often pay a fee to place a machine in an unrelated business, so the person behind the counter likely knows less about where to send the change than you do, and might pocket it, wasting both your effort and the money of the person you were trying to return it to.) I read somewhere that when you die, you get a little shoebox full of all the things you lost, like carkeys and favorite decoder rings, so I figure that there is a vending machine fairy up there that keeps track of all the times that vending machines either shorted you or gave you an extra candy bar, and if over your life, it does not even out, then in that shoebox, will be the change. I never fret when the vending machine takes my money unfairly, and I never worry about what to do if an extra quarter comes back.