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Is it Frugal or is it Fraud?

Some of the most-profitable money-saving tips I hear are the ones I can't print.

That's because they're unethical, if not illegal.

I'm always hearing clever little ways to "maximize" my coupons, "make the most" of freebie offers and "challenge" store policies.

I heard from one mom who got a free box of diapers by calling the company and saying the ones she bought were missing their adhesive tabs (they weren't). I've heard about folks who clear their computer's cookies or use several different household printers to beat couponing sites' per-customer limits.

I've even heard--and this goes beyond the pale--about people pretending to "forget" that their laundry detergent is under their cart in hopes the cashier won't notice it. That's not being frugal, that's just plain stealing.

According to a story in Sunday's L.A. Times, it's not just a Western New York phenomenon:

Serial returners have been conditioned by a culture of retail discounting and tight economic times. And the Internet has opened up new opportunities for testing the limits of retail return policies.

At times, the activity amounts to flat-out fraud. Sham returns involving stolen merchandise, items bought with fake money and doctored e-receipts cost the industry $8.8 billion last year, affecting nearly 95% of retailers, according to the National Retail Federation.

But there's also a mushrooming undergrowth of not-quite scams and ethically hazy work-arounds — tricks that regular customers pull to save some money. Spending a minimum of $50 to get a freebie and then returning everything but the gift. Scouring aggregator websites for online coupon codes intended only for a retailer's email subscribers. When buying discounted items that are final sale, asking for a gift receipt just in case — that way, the product can be exchanged later for store credit . . . . 

Some consumers justify their tricky tactics as a necessity in a shaky economy or simply as smart shopping. Others call it a form of retail Robin Hooding — retailers, they say, overcharge for products, and those bloated corporations wouldn't miss a few extra dollars, right? And there are those for whom wriggling through the loopholes in a return policy heightens the thrill of a bargain hunt.

Other consumers in the article create several e-mail addresses with different, fake dates of birth in order to cash in on restaurant birthday freebies and return clothing after it has been worn.

Some retailers are chalking these losses up to the cost of doing business while others are tightening up their policies to crack down on unethical shoppers.

One consumer, and this actually seems OK to me, regularly presses Amazon for $15 gift cards when his two-day Prime deliveries arrive late.

"I think it's perfectly, perfectly fine," he said. "Most corporations, they have no problems taking advantage of consumers or workers for profit, so whenever a consumer can get a little more bang for their buck, I'm 100% for that."

What do you think? Where's the line between frugality and fraud?


---Samantha Maziarz Christmann

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