Dear Ethicist

So, a bit of a quandary here. I know what the "right" thing to do is, but at the same time, I'm kind of on the fence about it. A little detail:

What if you made a purchase of an item of not small money — say, over $100.

Then, you decided you no longer wanted the item — and it was thus far unused.

So, you sold it to an interested third party for the price you originally paid for it.

Between when you sold it and when the item was actually used, circumstances changed about the item and the seller offered a refund to anyone who no longer wanted the item. All you'd have to do was to apply for a refund.

You did not apply for the refund, as the item was no longer yours, and the individual who purchased it from you also did not ask if she could sell it back to you so you could get the refund.

The item was then used, and all parties were happy.

The end, right?

Not quite: Yesterday, I got a notice at my PayPal address (through which I had purchased the item): I'd been refunded. (Not the full amount, about 95% of the amount.) Again, I'd never applied for a refund.

I know what Det. Richie Roberts would do in "American Gangster."

What would you do?

Not what should you do if the world were full of rainbows and flowers and we all never tried to get that extra drip of gasoline from the hose once we'd turned off the pump.

What would you do?

And what if it were a vastly larger sum of money?



  1. R.G. Ryan on 11/21/07 at 8:41 pm

    I have fantastic news for you…I have an answer to your quandry. Simply send the money to me. No…no thanks required. :-0

  2. Armchair News on 11/21/07 at 8:55 pm


    The one thing I hadn’t yet considered! Lol!

  3. gunderson bee on 11/21/07 at 9:31 pm

    You can try to give it back. 🙂

    I once did some minor freelance work for a local client. It was a new organization and things were a bit chaotic. My bill came to around 600-800 or so. I can’t remember exactly.

    3 weeks later, I get a check for $4,000. Huh?

    I called the people I worked with on the project. My contact tried to figure it out and couldn’t, so she forwarded me to some accounting department. I called and emailed that accounting department 3 times. Never got a response.

    So I cashed the check, took out my amount due, and sent the remainder back with a letter and the story of the check. It was my reputation after all…

    She sent it back, telling me the amount was correct. Huh? 

    I tried again, and called, and emailed and got nowhere.

    So I kept it, for what I assumed was a temporary deal. I mean seriously… I waited a year with that money in my hands, expecting an audit or some end of fiscal year accountant to realize they overpaid me, but nothing. That was over 4 years ago.

    Should I have kept it at that point? I don’t know. I honestly tried to give 3200 dollars of their own money back and they wouldn’t take it. So be it, I guess. 🙂

    And based on my experience with PayPal… good luck trying to get them to unsend money or change a cog in the system. It’s quite a daunting task.

  4. mikecap on 11/21/07 at 11:21 pm

    I vote for donating the money to the One Laptop Per Child project.

  5. Armchair News on 11/22/07 at 7:38 pm

    I hear you on that — I had a similar experience (closer to yours) when I bought my first Macintosh. Long story, but I tried to give them the money and then they didn’t take it, so I kept it in my account for a year and finally decided it was mine.


  6. LeendaDLL on 11/22/07 at 10:21 pm

    Not just theory but what I really would do:
    I’d give the refund to the person who bought the item from me. If I couldn’t hunt them down, I’d give the money to charity.

  7. Schomer on 11/30/07 at 7:38 pm

    could it be that the person you sold it to applied for the refund and it came to you by mistake because the company thought you still owned it or was the original owner of it?

  8. Armchair News on 12/01/07 at 1:09 pm

    It isn’t an entire impossibility, but they’d need the original confirmation number and a few other details to be able to have done it. I’m going to say that’s unlikely.

    Then again, it’s now been a week and no reply when I asked the seller how it happened!