Sunday, May 06, 2007


Like many of her neighbors in Laguna Woods, Calif., Karen M. enjoys buying stuff. Easy enough.

What's not so easy is what happens when something goes wrong with an order and Karen wants to make things right. I'm not talking about when a company owes Karen money. Her problem is the opposite: On several occasions Karen has not been charged for an order received and has found it near impossible to pay up.

How far should she have to go in trying to correct a company's mistake in her favor?

Take the bathing suit Karen ordered online. When the suit didn't arrive, she called and, after navigating her way through the telephone menu, finally reached an operator. The operator told her that the suit was out of stock, so the company would credit her credit card. Two days later, however, Karen received the suit. She called, navigated the telephone menu again, told the operator she had gotten the suit and asked to be rebilled.

When her credit-card statement arrived, the credit was shown, but not the rebilling. Karen called again, marched through the telephone menu again and spoke to yet another operator. She still hasn't been charged.

Or take the pharmacy where she gets her prescriptions. After she orders a prescription refill online, the pharmacy sends her an e-mail when it's ready and then charges her credit card. But recently, after waiting seven days and receiving no e-mail, she called the pharmacy, navigated its menu and spoke to an operator. She ended up with a double prescription for which she was never charged. She called, but still hasn't been charged.

Or how about when she bought gift wrap that her grandson was selling to raise money for his school? She ordered two rolls. The company sent her three. She e-mailed the company saying that she'd send back the extra roll if it would pay shipping, but was told to keep the extra roll. The next day she received two more rolls. That makes three rolls, so far, for none of which she has been charged.

Karen is an honest woman who, quite rightly, believes that she should pay for the stuff she buys. Nevertheless, getting these companies to charge her has turned into a part-time job.

"If I call once to advise the company that they have made a mistake in my favor," she asks, "is that one call enough? Or do I have to keep making calls, as long as it takes, until they get it right?"

The right thing for Karen to do is exactly what she had been doing: trying to correct the mistake by contacting the companies to tell them of their errors. All the same, she's not obligated to spend hours on the telephone begging companies to take the money she owes them. One call is sufficient for that purpose and, if I were her, that's where I'd leave things.

She could go a step further, however, by placing a check in the mail, along with a copy of the packing slip and an explanatory note, leaving the company to figure out how to clean up its billing mess. This might result in Karen having to deal with uncashed checks when balancing her checkbook, of course, but it would save her from treacherous telephone menus and allow her to rest easy knowing that she had gone out of her way to do what was right, even when these companies couldn't figure out what they were doing wrong.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article about Karen trying to pay for something and the run-around she got.
In December 2006, I received a rug from a MAjor department store that I didn’t order & I am still battling with them, 5 months later. After calling them 22 times, being routed to customer service outsourced to India & each call lasting at least 10 minutes explaining the same thing over and over- I am at the end of my rope. I even wrote to their corporate offices in New York and San Francisco and its been a week and no reply whatsoever. I can totally understand her frustration! It boils down to: Companies Don‘t Care.

Bill Jacobson said...

Things like this happen. Its a cost of doing business. Far too often it would cost a company more in labor and shipping to recover and account for these erroneous shipments than simply write them off. A customer who receives an unordered good has no duty (legal or moral) to pay for the unordered goods. The most that would be morally (but not usually legally) required of the erroneous receiver is to notify the sender of the erroneous shipment once and hold the goods for the shipper's retrieval for a reasonable period of time. If the shipper fails to recover the goods within a reasonable period of time, the receiver may dispose of the goods in any way he chooses.