If you accidentally send an unwanted shipment to a customer, you'll have to read carefully to avoid violating the law or the consumer's rights. There is no single law addressing shipments that were never ordered. Instead, a patchwork of laws covers this issue, and the law that applies depends on the specifics of your situation.
Receiving the Wrong Item
If the unordered item was an incorrect fulfillment of an order the customer did place, you are legally required to send the correct item or refund the customer's money in full -- including shipping costs. You can ask the customer to return the item, but he has no legal obligation to do so. If, however, you have a contract with the buyer requiring him to return incorrect shipments -- such as the sort of contract you might have with a long-term purchaser -- this contract trumps the law.
Other Unordered Merchandise
Occasionally, a retailer sends a package to the wrong person or sends someone else's merchandise to a previous customer. If the customer didn't order anything from your business, you have no obligation to provide the customer with any additional merchandise or incentives. The customer, however, is legally entitled to keep the merchandise -- though you can request that the customer return it.
Auto-billing is the practice of regularly billing a customer's card for some form of recurring service or merchandise. You might use this strategy, for example, if you run a membership-based gym or offer subscriptions to supplements or magazines. Customers must be able to cancel their memberships whenever they want, however. If a customer no longer wants to receive goods and services and you continue to send them -- and bill for them -- the customer can initiate a dispute with her credit card company.
Dealing With the Customer
Although customers don't have to return an unordered item, if he agrees to return it, you must pay shipping and any other costs the consumer has incurred. If the customer placed an order but received the wrong item, consider offering an incentive such as a discount or free shipping on the next order. Never blame the customer for the error, and take immediate responsibility for the problem. If you notice the issue before the customer does, be sure to notify her.
- Mail Order Legal Guide; Erwin J. Keup
- Bureau of Consumer Protection: Business Guide to the FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule
- Federal Trade Commission: Unordered Merchandise
- Federal Trade Commission: Billed for Merchandise You Never Received? Here's What to Do.
- The New York Times: How to Stop Rogue Automatic Payments
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.