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Unscrupulous merchants or honest mistakes?

Posted by daveb on November 9th, 2007

We stopped on the Amalfi coast for a spot of lunch. The setting was so nice that we decided to push-the-boat-out and go for a main course at a restaurant (a real treat for us, nowadays). Two fair pastas, two waters, two coffees and–infuriatingly–two cover charges later; the bill came to a hefty €30 (the pasta dishes were €8 each, so I’ll leave you to work out the rest). I handed over my Amex and watched the super-friendly waiter punch-in €50 to his chip-and-pin machine. Rather than let me enter my pin (at which point the amount charged would have been displayed), he elected to print a counterfoil for my signature. Fifty euros? Honest mistake, I thought. That was until he subtly tore-off the paper with the amount hidden under his thumb and forefinger. He laid-down the slip and handed me a pen to sign, still “helpfully” holding it down with his thumb covering the number. I told him that the bill was €30 and that he had typed €50. After an initial surprised and then disagreeable look, he rolled-out a well rehearsed apology and gave me €20 cash in return for my signature (which I very carefully checked was not a fake; the cash, not my signature!).

On walking out of the restaurant, we passed a group of Americans who were on their way in for a spot of lunch. I told them, that in my opinion, the food was fair but for them to take care with the ‘check’. Without further coaching, they decided to eat elsewhere.

The next day, we bought a few rolls and some ham in a delicatessen. When the deli-man rang up the price on his weighing machine, we questioned him on it as five-odd euros seemed a lot for what we were getting. He reassured us that it was correct, so we paid up and went off to make our lunch. Upon opening the packet, we noticed that the price-sticker was actually itemised and, true enough, it contained two and a half euros of stuff we hadn’t bought. After lunch, I went back and called him on it. This time he agreed and refunded the extra with an apology. Maybe this was a genuine mistake? I can’t help thinking that, as this guy works here, he knows how much a couple of slices of ham and a few rolls cost; yet initially when questioned, he reassured us that the amount–double the actual cost–was perfectly reasonable…

It’s difficult to know what to advise you to protect against scams like these: On the one hand I want to tell you to pay for everything with cash (thus avoiding the first scam), but then again credit card companies offer protection against unscrupulous merchants in certain cases too, and it’s probably going to be easier to get your credit card refunded than to reclaim  cash from a vendor who doesn’t want to pay. Always, always check your bill.

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