Suppose I’m buying 10 items, and I notice that the cashier has accidentally only scanned 9 of them, leading to a total that is too low. Do I have a duty to remind the cashier?

I understand that the cashier’s mistake probably does not cancel the debt, and theoretically they could still come after me for it later. But what I’m asking is whether I have a duty to remind the cashier.

Also, I’m not necessarily saying I would actually do this - I just want to understand the law.

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    – feetwet
    Aug 20 at 17:22

2 Answers 2


When you go to the store, they offer various things that they are willing to transfer to you in exchange for money. In the simple case, they offer you an apple in exchange for 50 cents. When you hand over the money, and they hand over the apple, the transaction is complete – now it's their money and your apple. That is the essence of a sales contract. If they don't give you the apple, they are in breach of contract, likewise if you don't hand over the money you are in breach of contract.

Shoplifting, which will be punished by the government, is different from simple breach of contract. Unknowingly being the beneficiary of a clerical error is clearly not a crime. If you are aware that you did not pay for the goods yet received them, and you know that this is not a gift from the clerk or the store, then you are treading on the territory of shoplifting, though to be convicted the government would have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you were aware that you were taking stuff that is not yours (it's not yours because you didn't pay for it).

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    At least in the case of England this gets the contract slightly backwards - the shop does not offer to sell things, customers offer to buy them. The contract is made when the shop accepts the customer's money. The shop displaying things is just an "invitation to treat", not a binding offer.
    – bdsl
    Aug 19 at 17:38
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    @bdsl I believe that's generally true in the US as well. I understand that there are rare cases where advertisements have been held to be binding offers, but I can't find anybody giving a concrete example. Aug 19 at 21:21
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    @GlennWillen New York consumer protection law generally requires retailers to honor the lowest advertised price.
    – phoog
    Aug 20 at 9:40

People seem to assume they are inexpensive items.

If you were buying 10 laptops valued at $1,000 each and the cashier only charged you for 9 due to the value of the laptop you would be committing a felony in many states if you walked out of the store with a $1,000 item of merchandise knowing you did not pay for it.

You would be knowingly removing property from the store without compensating the store for the item. A deliberate act. Theft. You would be committing a crime. Whether the clerk made a mistake or not you know you didn't pay for the item and you knowingly chose to walk out with merchandise you had not paid for.

A clerks error doesn't make it legal for a person to take merchandise without paying for it.

Whether it could be proved in court is another story. You could commit perjury and lie about knowing you were taking the item without paying for it. Or take the 5th amendment. Or not testify at all. No matter what you would still be a criminal though.

  • 3
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    Aug 19 at 7:26
  • In many states $1,000 is not enough to be a felony and it could be hard to prove that it was actual theft and not an honest mistake.
    – Joe W
    Aug 19 at 21:34
  • @JoeW They qualified the answer with "in many states". And the last paragraph already discusses the fact that they usually can't prove it.
    – Barmar
    Aug 19 at 22:24
  • @Barmar my quick research suggests that more states would have it not be a felony.
    – Joe W
    Aug 19 at 23:15
  • @JoeW OK, but many != most. It would probably be clearer if they wrote "in some states".
    – Barmar
    Aug 21 at 15:13

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