Should a Consumer Return a Duplicate Shipment?

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Last updated on June 4, 2018 Views: 640 Comments: 25

Day one, there didn’t appear to be a problem. Some time earlier, my girlfriend ordered some clothing online. Either she had received a discount to apply to the order or she would receive a future discount in return for placing the order. I’m not clear on the details of the discount, but it’s mostly irrelevant to the story and the resulting conundrum. Well, it’s a conundrum to me, but she didn’t seem to give her choice a second thought.

That day, the package arrived. It contained everything she ordered from the large clothing retailer. I won’t name the store; I used to shop there myself for cheap tee-shirts and comfortable jeans, but I’m not a big fan of the quality anymore. And they’ve been known to mail coupons whereby the recipient may receive one of three discounts — you never know which discount you’ll get until you open the mailing.

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Day two, she found a surprise: a second shipment. It was identical to the first. The packing slip matched character for character. It was the same order number. She checked the online activity for her credit card, and there was only one charge. She paid once, but received her full shipment twice. The error was clearly in the distribution process.

By the time she shared the news with me, she had already made her decision: she would keep the extra shipment — and keep the mistake to herself. (Well, now the situation is somewhat public.) The products she received are some she wouldn’t mind having duplicates. She cited me the law, which apparently in New York — I haven’t confirmed this — says that if a company sends a customer a package through the mail, that package is the property of the recipient.

If the law clearly indicates the shipment belongs to her regardless of whether she has paid, she is under no obligation to do anything else but enjoy the free gifts.

In other words, the law is the only metric by which consumer behavior should be evaluated. We talked about this philosophy briefly, and it was a non-judgmental discussion. In her mind it’s simple: a large company made a mistake, and her responsibilities in the matter are clear. I can see the situation from her perspective. This is hardly a loss to a big clothing company. They’re likely not to care. In fact, based on previous experiences, I expect that if she were to call the company to let them know of the error, the company’s policy is almost guaranteed to involve allowing the customer to keep the package with no further obligations.

As a consumer, I don’t feel bad for the company. It can handle the loss; in fact, the company’s executive plan their pricing with a certain amount of planned loss. All customers are already paying for the occasional shipping mistake, not to mention outright in-store shoplifting and online fraud. But as someone who either sells items or can sympathize with small retail business owners, I can I think companies might like to know of the error, even if they will tell the consumer to keep the extra products.

Maybe the rules are different depending on how we might assume the mistake might affect the company.

What would I do if I were in her place? If the company were small, I’d call and let them know about the mistake. With this large clothing retail company? I don’t know what I would do. So I asked Consumerism Commentary readers on Twitter after letting my girlfriend know this would be the topic of an upcoming article on Consumerism Commentary. (Some of these tweets are edited or combined.)

We had that happen once. We informed them of it. They thanked us and just told us to keep the stuff. – @SWAMFinance

call and tell them and let them decide. Good karma will hopefully prevail 🙂 – @AppFlyer

Call the company who will then praise you and just tell you to keep it anyways 😉 – @BudgetsAreSexy

I’d want to keep the stuff, but would feel too guilty. Call the company. 🙂 – @KrystalAtWork

@krystalatwork I’d do the same thing. Of course, I’d ask that they pay return shipping though; I’m not a charity 🙂 – @debtblag

I tell them. Half the time they tell you to keep it… but that’s their call… of course, they’d better make it really easy for me to send back if they want it back! – @RevancheGS

I’ll play devils advocate. Keep! I mean, they are going to tell you to keep it anyways, 9/10. – @accordingtoathena

call them. company may give u a discount on a future purchase for being a good Samaritan. – @MattVATech

I could be just greedy or lazy but I’d just keep it, lol – @moneyfig

call/return. It’s the right thing to do. – @thegoodhuman

Update: As pointed out by @HomeBuyerNation, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is clear on this issue.

If you receive merchandise that you didn’t order, you have a legal right to keep it as a free gift… You have no legal obligation to notify the seller. However, it is a good idea to write a letter to the company stating that you didn’t order the item and, therefore, you have a legal right to keep it for free. This may discourage the seller from sending you bills or dunning notices, or it may help clear up an honest error.

The Twitter poll isn’t a scientific study, of course, but it seems the general consensus, outside of a few outliers, is that a consumer should call and can expect the company not to ask for the shipment to be returned, despite the lack of a legal obligation.

What do you think? What would you do in this situation? Keep the items knowing the company won’t be affected by the loss or call to report the error? Have you been through this experience before? Is it even possible to accurately predict what you would do if faced with the same situation? No judging!

Article comments

Bob says:

Once I received the wrong item in my order. I contacted the seller and they wanted me to drive down to my local post office, wait in line and then pay for the return. Saying they will pay me back after the item was received. I asked them to send me a pre-paid shipping label for UPS, there’s a UPS store down the block from me with very short lines. The post office would have been a 30 minute wait and they are located 7 miles in heavy traffic. The seller refused then added the item to my credit card as a telephone purchase. I tried to stop payment with my credit card saying I didn’t authorize the purchase. The credit card company said that since I did receive the item, it needed to be returned. After speaking with a supervisor with my credit card they agreed that I need not pre-pay for the return and if the seller refuses to send a label so the USPS can pick it up or I can drop it off in a post office without waiting in line, I’m under no obligation to incur the financial burden of the return. I was then sued in small claims court, the seller didn’t show up, I got a default judgement that the seller contested with a lawyer.

Ty says:

The law states that you do not have to return an UNSOLICITED item. This is to protect you from unscrupulous people.

If however you ordered something, were billed for it and a second one arrived and you weren’t billed you need to make whoever sent it aware of the mistake. In some cases they may just let you keep it.

Hue Mungus says:

I would have kept the extra and got my money back for the original order

Anonymous Recipient says:

Yesterday I came home and was excited to see the box had arrived with an iPod Nano in it from a big retail store that I had ordered. I wondered why I had received a larger box for one small item. I opened it to find no packing slip and and a box of 6 iPod Nanos. I will call and tell them about their error on Monday. I was only charged for one. I assume whoever is filling orders didn’t know the boxes contain more than one in the warehouse and lots of people have been receiving many iPods from them. I guess legally if they are mailed to you they are yours. We’ll see what they say. If they say keep them, I’ll give some to the school to gift to kids who may appreciate them.

Anonymous says:

What if a company repeatedly duplicated your online order, sent it to you, charged you, then you have to goo through the repeated hassle of returning an order? Can I challenge the second charge and keep the duplicate do they will finally turn s ticket into IT to fix the issue as I have repeat ly asked. My mailman said this has happened to his daughter as well.

Anonymous says:

anyone hear of Karma? what about the idea that someone cheated/stole/kept something they did not pay for. what about the conscious mind that says “I got 2 but paid for one”. the person knew they got 2 but paid for 1. that is lack of honesty. I wouldn’t want that on my mind. wonder how many other things the “dishonest person” is not talking about? Cheating on boyfriend/husband perhaps? I would have called the company or where I got the item from and asked them what to do. But – if they wanted it returned I’d have them pay shipping since it was their fault.

Anonymous says:

Sara I agree with what you said.
However for what its worth the law is clear I have no legal obligation to return it.
Plus the shipping fee to return would close to nullify any such good deed.

Anonymous says:

Just received a duplicate shipment of a $2500 item from a large company! As much as would love to keep it, I decided to be honest and let them know of their (big) mistake. Well, the customer service rep just made a return label and I wasn’t even thanked once.

Anonymous says:

I would want to find out if it is an honest mistake or an intentional act. Sometimes companies don’t want the staff back anyway. The other day, I ordered a bathroom cabinet I found going cheap on e-bay. They sent me two. I called them and asked if they would collect it. They told me to keep it.

You have to think that it was you who made the mistake. For example, when I was working in a hotel a few years back, I forgot to charge the bar bill to the customers account. It was about $9 and not a big deal. I sent a letter to the customer asking the money because it was not my money to forget about it. They have not replied to may letter in anyway. I thought they cannot be nice people if they are happy to drink but not want to pay for it.

Anonymous says:

I’m a lawyer, but I have no idea what the law is on this topic (and it may vary by state) and I don’t think it matters.

You gotta do the right thing.

Once I received my order of cosmetics/bath products plus someone else’s (completely different stuff that I never would have ordered). I contacted the company and they told me to keep it. I think I still have it tucked away. Probably time to re-gift.

Donna Freedman says:

When all is said and done, what matters is whether you can live with what you did.
At one of the lowest points of my single-mom life a bank teller confused my transactions and in addition to transferring $40 from savings to checking also gave me $40 in cash.
Boy, did I need that money — I was working part-time and getting no child support. But I immediately said, “There’s been a mistake.”
Again: Couldn’t have lived with myself had I kept something that wasn’t mine.

qixx says:

I do know that it does vary by state. In my current state the items delivered are free to keep. The company can’t charge you nor can they even request them back. If you were to call and ask about returning it they can’t legally tell you anything other than they are your’s to keep. The last state i lived in was allowed to arrange for their return.

I’d expect the reason companies usually say the stuff is yours to keep is because it is easier to follow the most strict state’s laws than to track rules for different states and train customer service reps different depending on the state.

Anonymous says:

This happened to me recently. Except I had placed a small order for some supplies (which I received without incident) then a week later I received a big box full of other supplies (someone else’s order sent to me by mistake). I emailed the company, which I would describe as a medium sized company, not huge, but not small, and they had the nerve to ask me to drive the package to FedEx and mail it back to them. I told them I would not go that far out of my way to fix their mistake, and eventually they arrange for a FedEx truck to come to my house and pick up the package. No “thank you”, no discount or coupon, nothing. And this is a company that brags about their amazing customer service.

Donna Freedman says:

Well, shame on them. You tried to do the right thing and they expected you to go to the trouble of fixing their mistake.
While doing the right thing is its own reward, it’s nice to get a “thanks for being honest” or something like that.
And can you at least HINT at the name of the company??? Maybe tell us what it rhymes with…? 😉

Donna Freedman says:

Oh, and P.S.: It’s probably not too late to call the company and ask for a supervisor to whom to tell your tale. Possibly the customer service rep was new and just blurted out, “Can you just drive it to Fed Ex?” without thinking things through.
You’d be doing the company a favor, since this is the kind of thing that makes retailers tremble: an inexperienced CS rep ticking off a customer who sends the anecdote out on social media, making the company look dumb. You could be sure to say, “I think this could be a training issue,” vs. trying to get the CS rep in trouble with the boss.

Anonymous says:

It is a relatively small, specialized craft supply company. At the risk of sounding like a hipster, you’ve probably never heard of them 🙂 and will most likely have no occasion to buy from them.

I was put off by the situation, but not so put off that I wouldn’t buy from them again. I just found it very strange, and frankly poor business practice, to even suggest that I go out of my way to correct their mistake, and for nothing in return. But I agree with many other comments, it was more important for me to do the right thing and contact the company. And I would do it the same way again.

Anonymous says:

Just saw this post after experiencing the same issue with Amazon today. The representative I’m talking to is apparently going to mail me a shipping label and then I’m supposed to mail it back? I’m starting to wish I just kept my mouth shut.

Anonymous says:

A certain company with a bulls eye logo sent me a duplicate order of a Christmas gift. I did call the company to let them know (and make sure I wasn’t going to be charged)–the rep said I could return it “if I wanted” or keep it. Well, it was the holidays when the stores are crazy and everyone’s schedule is full, I felt I had done my due diligence… so my sister enjoyed two pairs of shoes that year!

Donna Freedman says:

I’d let the company know. If the stuff were expensive they’d likely send me a prepaid label to return it. What’s more likely is that they’ll say, “Ooops — free gift for you!”
I once ordered a few items on Amazon and somehow managed to get them delivered…to my daughter’s mother-in-law. D’oh! When I called to see how I might get the items re-sent correctly (picked up by Amazon driver? prepaid label mailed? and I was willing to pay for this), the Amazon rep said, “That’s OK, we’ll just resend another order to you.”
Of course, she also politely made it clear that this was a one-time thing and that I’d have to be more careful in the future. (Agreed.)

Anonymous says:

If you did not want the duplicate item, would you consider returning the original for a refund, essentially getting your original order for free? This seems like the least honest thing to do, but if you don’t need it, why keep it?

Anonymous says:

Thanks for including me! My follow up tweets explained I’d feel too guilty, if that makes me look less horrible. But my first reaction was definitely keep! Hehe.

Anonymous says:

I’d have to let the company know. There wouldn’t even be a moral option for anything else. I know myself well enough that if I kept it without saying anything, while guilt wouldn’t kill me per se, it would sort of nag at the back of my mind for the rest of my friggin life. I can think of a few ambiguous choices I’ve made in life and they bug me still–even though the majority of them happened when I was under 20 years-old.

Anonymous says:

I had this happen in a different form. This summer large internet company sent me a TV I had never ordered or paid for. I couldn’t handle the guilt and wrote them. They told me to keep it. I have to say though it is still sitting in it’s box in my living room.

Anonymous says:

This happened to me last December. It was the online presence of a physical retail chain, so I took them back to the store. The clerk did take them back but decided to credit me the purchase price. So instead of getting a double order for 50% free stuff (100% gain), I got a single order for 100% free stuff (infinite gain). I did not get the impression there was going to be any feedback to the website or online fulfillment, so in the end it was worse for the company that I tried to do the right thing. That said, I would do the same thing again.

Anonymous says:

Thanks for including me 🙂

This has only happened to me once in real life, and the company did first tell me they’d ship out a mailer to send it back (it was a couple shirts of value around $20), and when I got back in touch with them a month later to say that it never arrived, they told me to just keep it. I ended up gifting them to my brother-in-law.

I don’t think I’d personally make the distinction you did in letting the size of the company determine which action I was going to take. Getting in touch with the company and letting them fix their mistake is all about who I am, not who they are.