Consumer IQ

What Would You Do? 3 Ethical Dilemmas Customers Face

I’ve spent the better part of this month talking about companies that cheat their customers, but what happens when the tables are turned?

What about customers who cheat a company?

It’s a dilemma almost every customer is faced with a time or two. I was, just recently. Before Christmas, I ordered two movies for my kids from the Toys “R” Us website. The company sent us two copies of the same film.

When I called to let it know about the error, a representative told us to “just keep it.” Apparently, if the merchandise is valued at less than $15, it’s on the company. How nice of them!

We then faced a choice: Do we donate the DVD to a good cause (very charitable) keep the DVD for ourselves (so-so) or return the video to a Toys “R” Us store and try to collect a $14 refund (highly unethical).

Easy decision, right?

No.

You’d be amazed at home many folks would go with option #3, which technically is theft. Customers stole an eye-popping $107.3 billion in merchandise in 2010, the last year for which numbers are available. Their wrong choices affect all of us, regardless of how honest we are. Retail crime cost the average American family $422 during the year, according to the Global Retail Theft Barometer.

Here are the three biggest ethical dilemmas faced by customers. How would you handle each one?

Incorrect change.

The problem with receiving the wrong amount of money back is that it often requires a split-second decision: Say something or walk away. While we’d like to think that we’re so honest that we reflexively would say something, the truth is, we don’t always.

Wrong price tag.

Employees make mistakes, and when they do, customers have a choice: Either buy the product and profit from it dishonestly, or refuse. I faced a heartbreaking case recently involving airline tickets that were priced incorrectly. While some passengers had no knowledge of the fare mistake and were seriously inconvenienced when the airline canceled their tickets, many air travelers knew about the error but booked the flights anyway, hoping the company would honor them. Of course, that’s pretty unethical.

On the right side of a sale.

Here’s a conundrum that is best illustrated by this post in the Consumerist: Returning merchandise that had been on sale, but is now marked back up to its original price. Should you keep the difference? In this particular case, a customer stood to earn $50 by returning a Microsoft Kinect, post-sale. While that may seem wrong at first blush, further thought might reveal some doubts. After all, didn’t the business mark up the device in the first place and then profit from it? Why can’t a customer do the same thing?

It’s one thing to look at these three situations and declare that they’re wrong. But in the heat of the moment, faced with the possibility of pocketing an extra $5, or saving $500, would you always do the right thing?

I’m lucky. I had time to think about how to handle my Toys “R” Us DVD. We donated it to a friend who runs a preschool. I’d like to think I would always make the right decision, but I can’t be sure.

No one can.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions at by email.