Dec. 8. 2008 , 2008 -- Every year consumers lose more than $2.5 billion because of store scanner errors, according to consumer surveys.
Nobody wants to be overcharged, especially in this economy. So the "Good Morning America" price check team investigated, shopping at a dozen stores in New York, New Jersey and Virginia. We scoured the aisles and scanned the circulars looking for price match-ups and mix-ups.
At KB Toys, we saw a sign for Pokemon key chains -- buy one, get one for 50 percent off. But at the register, the scanner didn't recognize the sale. Luckily the clerks did and corrected the price.
At Walgreens, we couldn't pass up a hat and scarf sale -- two for $5. But when we realized we were charged $6 instead of $5, we went back and talked to a manager who refunded the difference. Walgreens later told us the mistake was on the sign, not on the scanner, and apologized for the confusion.
At Target, we cruised the kitchen section and spotted miniature spatulas on sale for $4.99. Original price? $6.99. Then we noticed tiny print stating the sale had ended more than two weeks ago. And sure enough, at checkout, the spatulas rang up for $6.99.
Target told us it "is committed to accurate pricing. We apologize for the inconvenience guests experience when outdated promotional signs are not promptly removed from the sales floor. We constantly strive to ensure price accuracy and have processes in place to help team members remove signs once promotions have ended. We appreciate 'Good Morning America' bringing this to our attention and have taken steps to fix the problem."
From 2004 to 2008, a team of inspectors investigated whether products were ringing up wrong prices at 120 Target stores in 30 California counties. "We found a pattern of overpricing," said Mark Hanson, a division manager for Sonoma County Weights and Measures.
Violations were found by 75 percent of the inspectors. "There is no law that says you have to change your prices every week. If you do that, then you have an obligation to charge your customer the best price," said Hanson.
The Division of Measurement Standards in the California Department of Food and Agriculture oversees all of the county activities. "It's a very serious issue to every consumer," said Kristin Macey, special assistant of the division. "Being overcharged is really a breach of trust between the consumer and the store."
As part of a settlement agreement with five California counties, Target Corp. agreed to pay $1.7 million in penalties without admitting wrongdoing. Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said, "Consumers should not have to worry about being charged the correct price when items are scanned at store registers. We believe the settlement in this case sends a message that will help ensure that consumer expectations are met."
Back at our price check challenge, we hit JC Penney and found a stack of men's caps on sale. We also found men's underwear for 75 percent off. At checkout, our receipt showed that we had been overcharged. The underwear failed to ring up at 75 percent off. And we were charged two different prices for the exact same cap -- $4.97 and $2.97.
The correct price for the cap was $2.97, and the clerk corrected the sale and refunded the difference. When we contacted JC Penney, the store apologized and said it never wants mistakes like that to happen.
Macy's was our final stop. In the women's section, we saw an enticing sale -- racks of clothing for $9.99 each. We used Macy's price-check machine to test 25 items from the racks. Nearly half scanned for more than $9.99.
We brought a few items to the register, and sure enough, we were charged $19.25 for a pair of pants and $24.15 for a sweater. We returned the next day to question the overcharges. The clerk verified that our purchases should have been $9.99 each and immediately gave us our money back.
Macy's told us it "has an unyielding commitment to provide outstanding customer service. We strive to ensure that merchandise pricing is current and accurate. If errors arise, Macy's will promptly make any necessary adjustments."
All told, we encountered scanner mix-ups at five of the 12 stores we visited. That's why you should always do your own checkup at checkout.
Know what you are buying. Read advertisements and sale signs carefully. Any condition of sale, especially percentage off, introduces the possibility of error.
Compare the advertised price with the shelf, sign and item price. The correct price is the lowest price. Know what you expect to pay before checkout.
Watch the transaction and read your receipts. If you think you were overcharged, ask to speak to someone who can explain the charges.
-- Mark Hanson, division manager, Sonoma County Weights and Measures
Weights and Measures inspectors said grocery stores are more accurate than other stores because they've had scanner technology the longest. Warehouse stores like Costco do pretty well because their prices rarely fluctuate.