Elisabeth is a 13-time Emmy winner, a critically acclaimed personal finance author, and a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. Connect with her via Twitter @ElisabethLeamy and on her website, Leamy.com.
Experts estimate Americans lose a billion dollars or more each year due to scanner mistakes at all kinds of different stores. Some of those overcharges come from stores charging sales tax on products—often health-related products—that are supposed to be tax-exempt, a topic we covered in depth on the show. Other overcharges happen when items marked for sale on the shelf don’t ring up correctly at the register. Here are several steps you can take to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.
It can happen anywhere. First of all, know that scanner mistakes happen in all kinds of different stores, from big-box chains to mom-and-pop shops. When we went undercover to see if stores charged us sales tax when they shouldn’t, we found more small businesses made mistakes, but major chains did too. And when state investigators did their own tests, they inevitably found overcharges at chains as well.
Do a spot check. Being a vigilant consumer can be exhausting, so if you don’t want to check every receipt at every store, choose a few where you shop most and put them to the test. Along the same lines, if you don’t have the time or energy to check every single item you buy, choose 10 to 15 and scrutinize those charges.
Snap cell phone pics. Now that most of us carry cameras—aka smart phones—everywhere we go, put this technology to use. Take cell phone pictures of the shelf tags of the products you want to spot check. Ideally, choose items that are on sale, because that’s where the most frequent mistakes happen.
Watch register and receipts. Instead of browsing magazines, keep an eye on the register as the clerk scans items. Do any of the prices differ from the photos you took? If products go by on the register too quickly, check your receipt instead. Just know that receipts are written in a sort of shorthand that can make identifying different products challenging.
Address discrepancies right away. Don’t be shy and don’t delay. It’s best to point out overcharges to the clerk or manager while you’re still in the store. It helps the store because the information is fresh and it helps you because you won’t let the matter slip your mind.
Take advantage of state programs. Some states have laws in place that reward you for catching store mistakes. For example, in Connecticut, if an item scans for a higher price than was on the shelf or sticker, you get the product for free! And in Michigan, you get up to five dollars back for the mistake. Make a game of it and see how much money or merchandise you can score!
File a complaint. If you encounter chronic offenders, you should file a complaint with the local or state office that oversees store scanner errors. In some places it’s the state Weights and Measures Department, in others the General Consumer Affairs office. Here is a link to consumer protection offices in every state. The more consumers who complain, the fewer stores will get away with overcharges.