Is it Fraud or Just an Honest Mistake?

A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place. ~ Harry Anderson

I have to admit I have a compulsion. Whenever I shop at a supermarket, I pay close attention to the price of everything I buy and I make sure that is what I pay come checkout time. Why do I do this? It is a compulsion, and because I have, on countless occasions, caught them mis-charging me for things.

Now, I have to admit it is becoming harder and harder to figure out in advance what the price of everything should be come checkout time. I was at a local supermarket this week, intending to buy a bottle of cheap white wine (it was for cooking, not drinking) and came across this price display:

It showed three prices. Since I belong to this particular supermarket’s “club” (you know, swipe the card and receive the discounted price), I assumed I would get the $5.99 price. I did not see that to pay $5.99 I had to buy six bottles. I did not see that because, well, I could not see that. The fine print below the price used five (5) point font, and since this bottle was on the bottom row (it was cheap wine), it was situated under the bottle’s shelf, about three inches above the floor.

As a form of cheap entertainment, I suggest you print out something on your printer written in five point font and see if you can read it when it is right in front of your face. Five point font is about seven hundredths (0.07″) of an inch high. The supermarket has no desire (or requirement) to make sure I understand what I am to be charged for anything. They understand that, unlike me, most people do not pay close attention to what they are paying at checkout. They swipe their debit or credit card and go on their way. They understand it, and maybe even take advantage of it, by purposefully mis-charging you.

Pay close attention to your shopping and soon enough you will catch them in a mistake, or is it? An honest mistake, by definition, should have a random outcome—without a bias. It is a mistake. Someone entered the wrong number by accident.

An truly honest mistake at the checkout counter would sometimes be to my benefit (under-charging) and sometimes to my determent (over-charging). But it isn’t. To the best of my recollection, 100% of the mistakes I have detected at the checkout were in favor of the house. Now, it could be that because they never mark prices up from the retail price and only mark prices down when the item is on sale, the only possible mistakes are over-charging. But we will never know if it is an honest mistake or fraud—which would have a bias to the outcomes, especially in the house’s favor. When you catch them making a mistake at checkout, they politely apologize and make the necessary adjustments. “Sorry, our bad, honest mistake.”

I know if I wanted to commit fraud and wanted to make sure it could never be proved, I would falsely charge someone too much at the checkout counter. There are only two possible outcomes when for this: either I get caught or I do not. If I get caught, I apologize and make the necessary adjustments. “Sorry, my bad, honest mistake.” If I do not get caught, I just committed a crime that not only will never get reported, the victim will not even know they were victimized. It is a perfect crime.

Unless an insider whistleblower spills the beans, we may never know if the mis-charging at the checkout counter is actually fraud, but that does not mean you should not protect yourself from this rampant epidemic. You need to be vigilant. You need to note the price of items you toss in your cart and you need to monitor the scanned price during checkout. And you need one more thing: a big damn magnifying glass.