Sunday, December 27, 2020

Is a reader obligated to return a package received in error?

With less than a week to go before Christmas, CBS News reported data from Shipmatrix, a company that analyzes data on shipments made in the United States, which estimated that  roughly 6 million packages were piling up in warehouses and that on-time delivery had dropped to 86%. Check Point Software Technologies, a cybersecurity company, also indicated that fake texts and emails notifying people about the shipping status of a package were up 440% from the previous month.

Late deliveries and fake notices likely have a bunch of frustrated and nervous shoppers worried about gifts being delivered on time. But still another, likely much smaller category of shoppers, have found themselves with a different perplexing package problem.

"I was excited to see a package with the gift I thought I'd ordered arrived," writes a reader we're calling "Buddy." But when he opened the box, he found a book he had never ordered.

While it wasn't wrapped, Buddy initially thought that perhaps it was a gift from someone. But there was no note and no order slip enclosed. Given the topic of the book, Buddy was pretty sure it was not a gift from anyone who knew him terribly well.

"The only return address on the box was a shipping center in Kentucky," writes Buddy. "I didn't order the book. I didn't pay for the book. I'm pretty sure it was shipped to me by mistake."

Buddy feels bad for two reasons. The first is that there's likely someone out there expecting a book about aristocrats he or she will never receive. The second is that he's torn about simply keeping the book rather than making an effort to return it, something that might prove challenging given the slim information about its origin. If he doesn't try to return it, Buddy knows the likelihood that its intended recipient will ever receive it is much lower.

"What should I do?" Buddy asks.

Buddy is kind to worry about the intended recipient never getting the book. I'm of the mind that trying to be kind is most often the right thing to do. But Buddy should not be expected to take extraordinary measures to find out who the package was truly intended for if scant information is available for him to do so. While I'm not a legal expert on such matters, the Federal Trade Commission indicates on its website that a recipient of unordered merchandise has "no legal obligation to notify the seller." But, it goes on to say that,  "you may write the seller and offer to return the merchandise, provided the seller pays for shipping and handling."

Given the minimal information about the seller Buddy has, he might be hard-pressed to contact them. But, if he wants to, he can search online for the name of the shipping center to see if there's an email address through which he can reach the seller. If he sends off an email and is asked to return the book, then it would be kind of him to do so. If he receives no response or can't find a way to contact the shipping center, he at least can rest easy that he went above and beyond by trying. Or he can simply do nothing and decide if he wants to learn about aristocrats of 19th century America by reading the book. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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