How seriously do you take purchase receipts? Many of us typically throw receipts away within a few minutes or hours, so you might as well save the paper and avoid clutter in your purse or wallet, right?
As a financial crimes investigator, I encourage you to really think about this seemingly insignificant decision before you give your answer.
Criminals are cunning when using new methods with old tricks. One thing I have learned is that many would-be criminals are opportunists. When an opportunity arises, they make the most of it.
How does this apply to receipts? Let me share an experience I had recently.
Last week I visited a local shaved-ice stand. This particular stand happened to accept credit cards, and since I was low on cash, I opted to use one. The employee asked me, “Do you want a receipt?” I thought, “Why would I need a receipt for shaved ice?” Nevertheless, I instinctively said yes. The purchase was made using a smartphone. The employee calculated the purchase, showed me the amount, finished the transaction, and then put the phone down for me to sign. Because I wanted a receipt, I also entered my email address to receive the proof of purchase.
Little did I know that the employee added an unauthorized 38 percent tip to my transaction. Should I have left this guy a tip in the first place? Perhaps. At places like this, sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Regardless of the reasons why I decided against tipping on this particular occasion, I’m certainly glad to have asked for a receipt of my purchase.
Is it really necessary to ask for a receipt every time? Yes, and here are five reasons why:
1. Proof of ownership
A receipt is your legal proof of purchase. It is your evidence that what you purchased now belongs to you. For those who walk out of a retail store and the alarm goes off, an employee could stop you and ask for your receipt. Without it, you could be stuck in a very difficult predicament.
2. Returns and exchanges
Receipts allow you to return what you purchased for your money back or for an exchange. Many stores will offer an in-store credit even without a receipt, but a receipt will allow most purchases to be returned for your money back.
3. Tax audits
Purchases from certain locations or donations may be eligible for tax deductions. A receipt is your proof if you are claiming it on your taxes. Receipts may also allow for itemized deductions on certain tax refund forms.
Receipts sometimes include coupons. Why not save that extra 15 percent for doing a survey or collecting that free item the next time you return? Many companies, especially restaurants, have discounts or freebies printed at the bottom of a receipt that can save you money.
5. Protect yourself
As in my shaved-ice story above, receipts can turn out to be more important than you may realize in the moment. Criminals will always look for the most opportune moment to take advantage of you. Unfortunately, criminals are now using the lack of interest in receipts as a way to target individuals by adding unauthorized tips, running your card twice, or changing the total amount while you are distracted.
While $1 here or there may be insignificant to the victim, it can amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars to the criminal. In my situation, had I declined a receipt for a shaved ice, I would have been victimized and subjected to the hassle of disputing a claim without proof. By saying yes, I now have the employee’s first name, the amounts of both the original purchase and the unauthorized tip as well as the time, the date and the location.
Was this a mishap by the employee? Or has he been scamming all of his credit card-yielding clients this summer? Only an audit will tell (appropriately, an audit using receipts).
When was the last time you checked your receipt? From a victim’s perspective, a receipt is the best way to dispute a claim and get your money back.
Travis J Smoot is financial crimes investigator in Salt Lake City, Utah. He earned his master's degree in criminal justice from Boston University and a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Utah specializing in criminology.