It’s a common occurrence. You go to the department store and buy an item, only to find the price you were charged was higher than the price marked. In those cases all stores are required to refund the difference between the price charged and the price marked. But after that, what happens? Is the problem fixed and the item remarked or are a hundred more customers going to fall prey to the mistake?

UPC Scanner Laws

All states provide for some solution to these mis-scans, though there is little consistency from state to state as to what actually constitutes a mis-scan, and how to rectify the problem. Some define a mis-scan as an item scanning higher than marked, while others would include an item scanning higher than the price on a shelf tag. As for punishments, some states fine and levy civil penalties only, while others provide direct compensation to the customer for the mistakes.

Arizona Scanner Law

Arizona does not punish retailers for individual mistakes but bases its punishment on how a retailer performs on annual state audits of UPC accuracy. An inspector will randomly select 25 to 50 items, make a note of the price for each item and then have the cashier scan it to ensure the price is correct. Retailers with a greater than 2% failure rate are fined, while those below are not. The drawback to the Arizona law is that it implicitly accepts an error rate and therefore provides no incentives for retailers to achieve complete accuracy.

California Scanner Law

California’s scanning law defines a mis-scan a when a price scans higher than it is marked or higher than its shelf tag and seems to strike for complete accuracy in every transaction and on every item scanned. Under California law retailers can be fined up to $1,000 on seriously mis-scanned items, though fines between $25 to $100 are more common.

Although this does not provide any benefit directly to the wrong consumer, by potentially fining the retailer for each overcharged item, and for every single mis-scan, there is a great incentive for retailer accuracy. However, as there are no statewide audits or awards directly to the consumer for locating errors and reporting errors, California’s system is imperfect.

Michigan Scanner Law

Michigan’s scanning law is similar to California’s in that it seeks to punish each mis-scan, but takes the law one step further. Instead of providing civil fines and punishment, if a store overcharges you, Michigan law requires the retailer to refund you the amount of the overcharge, plus 10 times the difference, not to be less than $1 and no more than $5. By providing a direct award to consumers for their vigilance in locating errors the state turns each individual into a UPC inspector and takes seriously the desire for complete accuracy. The only drawback with the Michigan law is that it applies only to marked prices, not to shelf tags.

Some Items Are Exempt

It is worth remembering that every state creates classes of goods exempt from individual price-marking. As such, in those states that base their UPC scanning laws on individual marking there will be, by definition, classes of goods upon which an illegal UPC error will never occur. All states have different laws and you should always consult with the consumer protection bureau in your own state for more information