Social Question

dalepetrie's avatar

What exactly is the law regarding packages sent to you that you didn't order (see details)

Asked by dalepetrie (18002points) March 18th, 2012

So, one day, two packages from UPS unexpectedly showed up at my side door. The outer box says they are Breville 800jexl Juice Fountain juicers that sell for $300—$400 each. I know this because I had been shopping for one of these online, but everyone was out of stock. All online merchants said the manufacturer was back ordered and I was unable to actually order one. I had in fact just purchased one at a physical retailer the previous day, having given up on online ordering.

The next day another showed up. Now this is weird enough, but here are the other strange things:

1) Only one of the three packages had a packing list.
2) That packing list said it was package #1 of 1.
3) That packing list had me listed as the ship to, but not the buyer.
4) I have no idea who the buyer is, just that they live in PA.
5) I live in MN.
6) None of my credit cards have been charged.
7) None of my bank accounts have been debited.
8) There are no orders on Paypal, eBay or Amazon.
9) I did not order these from the merchant who sent them.
10) I don’t even have an account with that merchant (I checked).
11) I have no emails from this company or any 3rd party.

So, I’m really not sure what to do, and I want to know the law here. I’ve always heard that if someone sends you something you didn’t order, you can keep it and don’t have to pay for it. Now, if within a reasonable amount of time someone from this company contacts me and says they want them back and will pay the shipping, fine…I’m not going to fight them, even if the law IS on my side, clearly this is some sort of weird mistake that resulted from my online browsing. But what if they don’t contact me?

I have in the past “done the right thing” even when I would have been in my rights not to, and it’s often been thankless and sometimes costly to me personally (I’d elaborate but this is already so long a lot of people won’t read it). You are welcome to give me your opinions on the right thing to do, karma or what not, but I’ve decided that if no one contacts me in a reasonable amount of time, if I am within my legal rights to keep these, I will sell them and pocket the money, but I haven’t 100% decided if and when I’ll say it’s time to get rid of them or if there’s anything else I should do to satisfy any legal requirements I may have. So, I’m wondering what is the legal standing here?

1) Is it still the law that if someone sends you something you didn’t order, you can keep it and not pay for it?
2) Is that still true even if it was an honest mistake on the merchant’s part and not some effort to rip me off?
3) Is that true even though I actually wanted and bought one of these things?
4) Is there a certain amount of time I’m legally required to wait before they become legally mine?
5) Is the keep it for free thing only true is the US Mail is used, or do the same laws apply to UPS shipments.
6) Does the fact that none of these was signed for impact the law?
7) Is the one with a packing list any different from a legal standpoint than the ones without a packing list?
8) Do I have any requirement to contact the company or the bill to person on the one packing list?
9) If I DO contact them, do I have any legal standing if they insist they shipped more than 3 (since no note was even left at my door by UPS, for all I know a dozen other ones could have been delivered and stolen).
10) Does the high value of this item impact my legal responsibilities or rights in any way?

I guess I am willing to do the right thing, I just don’t want to get screwed in the process, and in my experience, looking a gift horse in the mouth ends up getting you bit. I’m willing to elaborate on my thinking process in the discussion and I’m willing to hear anyone’s opinion, and I will take any advice I get under advisement…I’m not going to just dismiss anything I don’t want to hear. Yes, the money would be nice, but I don’t want to do anything I might regret, and part of that is making sure I don’t do anything illegal.

So, anything you can tell me about where I stand legally, your opinion on what I should do or what you would do, or anything else you can tell me that I may find useful, I’d love to hear it.

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23 Answers

dappled_leaves's avatar

If this happened to me, and I was genuinely interested in returning the items cost-free, my first step would be to phone the merchant and explain to the manager what had happened. They will very likely arrange for them to be picked up from your house, which will cost you only the inconvenience of being there to greet the shipper. The only risk in this scenario is if something happens to the shipment during the return.

I would be tempted to contact the poor sod whose invoice you have, so he doesn’t wait several weeks for an expensive item that he’s already paid for and doesn’t know is not in transit to him. Not because I’d send it directly to him (that’s a bad idea), but so he knows that this is happening. The merchant probably won’t inform him.

dalepetrie's avatar

I am concerned about that risk and the risk I listed above that what if they try to hold me liable for more than I’d received? I thought about contacting the one person whose name I do have, but all I have is a name and address, no email…do I send a letter, and what does that do to my liability…given the value of these things, I’m mostly interested in protecting myself…I have to believe that if I were billed for something and did not receive it, the company should be able to straighten it out (and this is a bigger, respectable company, not some fly by night organization), and if they didn’t, the buyer’s credit card would likely reverse the charges.

My question to you is, you said if this happened to you AND you were genuinely interested in returning the items, would you be interested in doing so, or would you be more likely to justify keeping them? You don’t have to answer, I’m just curious.

FWIW, the merchant says on their return policy that they will pay for return UPS and ahve UPS pick up the packages at your house, but the site also asks for an order number, which I don’t have…it seems they don’t even know I exist, I honestly don’t have a ton of time to be spending on the phone trying to straighten this out. I mean, if I could guarantee it was an easy fix, I’d make a 5 minute call and it would be straightened out, I’d do it, but I have more than enough life experience with this kind of weird crap to know it is never as easy as it should be.

I know there have been times when I’ve thought “this is the right thing to do” and I’ve gotten on the phone and ended up going back and forth forever before thinking I had it all straightened out, only to have it become a big, weeks long ordeal and just stress me out. If I could just easily find a way to make sure no one got screwed and an honest mistake was easily corrected, I’d do it. But just one example of my experience with these things…I’ve gone as far as to find an endorsed blank check for a fair amount of money on the ground (in the days when these were considered the same as cash…I could have cashed it legally with no consequences, but it wasn’t mine and someone was surely missing it), and hunt down the payee by contacting the person who wrote the check, only to be treated with suspicion and rudeness, end up returning the check at my own expense, and not receive as much as a thank you. Other times when I’ve found cash and just kept it because there was no way to track down the owner, I’ve ended up on the better end of the deal and nothing came back to me ever.

It was suggested to me by my wife that selling them, even if I’m within my legal rights, it could result in bad karma. I don’t personally believe in karma, but I can’t disprove it, so I’m willing to tread lightly just in case. However, my wife also suggested that maybe this is good karma…am I being rewarded for something? If I suffer the consequences of bad karma every time it hits, and never reap the rewards of good karma, am I being a damn fool? And I don’t believe in Hell and am pretty sure that if there is a Hell, I won’t go there, even if I do sell these and pocket the cash.

My primary concern is protecting myself here, because doing the “right” thing to me includes making sure I don’t get hosed here.

Judi's avatar

I’m not sure what I’d do, but its great to see you @dalepetrie! How ‘bout that republican primary?

Andreas's avatar

@dalepetrie, I can’t answer your question as I’m not lawyer. But just something to consider: Maybe this might be best put in the hands of the police as possibly it might be part of a bigger fraud.

Recently some slime used my debit card online to pay for a purchase. My bank emailed me and I was able to have it bounced. The amount involved was $AUD24.05, a small amount compared to your case, but still important if we consider that these slimes are probably doing this multiple times a day.

I hope this helps, and please keep the group informed. All the best in your deliberations.

rooeytoo's avatar

I couldn’t do it, I would call the sender and tell them the story. As was said above, if they want the products back, let them arrange for UPS to pick it up at your house. It should not cost you and time energy or money.

This did indeed happen to me once, I ordered a t shirt from Roland Garros (I live in Australia). I received not only the t shirt but several other more expensive items I did not order. I was not charged for them, they were not on the packing list, they were just in the box. I sent an email to RG and told them. They thanked me for my honesty and said it wasn’t worth the cost of returning the merchandise and I should just keep it. I was so excited and pleased.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@dalepetrie “My question to you is, you said if this happened to you AND you were genuinely interested in returning the items, would you be interested in doing so, or would you be more likely to justify keeping them? You don’t have to answer, I’m just curious.”

I think I would return them. I don’t believe in karma, but it strikes me as the right thing to do, particularly since other people are missing the items, and the mess the merchant made of their sales is probably causing them grief. I take your point about not having time to spend on the phone; that would be me as well.

Ultimately, the merchant will figure out where the items were sent; the shipper will have all of that information, and you will receive more than one call while the merchant is trying to track them down, even if you don’t tell them the truth – but it sounds to me like you will.

I would call the merchant, speak only to someone in an authority position, and tell them you will deal only with them until the items are gone. Make it clear that you have been in a situation like this before (but not in a creepy way), and that you are determined for this incident not to cost you anything (and your time is money). You could try asking them to email you with a statement that you are not responsible for the condition of the items returned – I would offer that in their position.

This is their mistake, and it has resulted in their wanting something that you have – the onus is on them to pick up the costs and keep you happy. As long as you are firm and polite, this should be resolved to your satisfaction.

john65pennington's avatar

If you did not order the merchandise, it is not yours to keep.

Return to sender and let it go.

marinelife's avatar

I would contact the shipper and offer to return the items at no cost to me.

Keeping them and selling them is stealing.

funkdaddy's avatar

Overthinking this one. If you got a package intended for your neighbor, you’d walk it over there.

The shopping, backorders, packing slips, etc. are just extras that make it seem like a big conundrum.

It’s not yours, you know who’s it is, get in touch with them and let them know you have it. They should take it from there.


good to see you

Tropical_Willie's avatar

If the name on packing slip is yours,
the bill was sent to someone else,
and you have a friend or relative that lives in PA….
Send them a thank you letter.

Check with shipping company, they may tell you who the bill was sent to !

I send flowers to my wife at work – - she had better not send them BACK.

Cruiser's avatar

I think you should make every effort to return them. As if Comcast customer service wasn’t bad enough, when I had a new install in my home last year the modem didn’t work and I called to let them know and was promised a new one. 4 days later I called to find out where it was and they again promised it would be there in 2 days. 2 days later I called again and was given the same answer….not satisfied I talked to a supervisor who said she would Next Day air one to me. It finally came but so did 3 other ones later in the week. I called to ask what to do with them….they said keep them as it would cost too much to ship them back. What a waste!

wundayatta's avatar

They are probably insured for lost merchandise. If they inadvertantly send the merchandise to some random address, then it is surely lost.

I would let the stuff sit there for a while to see if anyone contacts you. But if they didn’t contact you in three to six months, I’d figure you can do what you want with it.

Kind of a novel way of “falling off a truck.”

dalepetrie's avatar

A lot to think about. I’ve kind of been going with @wundayatta‘s way of thinking. Now, if I thought someone was going to get hosed, that would be one thing, but I really doubt that will happen ultimately, it seems to me the inconvenience in straightening this out once the merchant is informed that the customer did not get their package would lie directly with the merchant, which is appropriate imv as they are the ones who made the mistake.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve dismissed everyone else…far from it. In fact, I’m inclined to contact the shipper. Problem is, as I’ve explained, given the way they delivered the packages (just left these expensive items outside my house on a rainy day nonetheless) with no real info, I’m a bit leery about saying or doing anything that would obligate me in any way, which is why I’m hoping someone with more understanding of the law will chime in. I do have a problem with contacting the buyer, because I don’t have an existing relationship with the buyer…the issue (if there is an issue) between the buyer and the seller does not involve me. The seller can recoup the expenses of replacing an item they sent to the wrong address either by contacting me and straightening this out, or by filing an insurance claim. The buyer has protection from both the seller’s satisfaction guaranteed policies, and from whatever credit card she purchased the item on.

With the limited amount of information I have, and I agree with what @funkdaddy said, it’s pretty simple if you get something of your neighbor’s you walk it over, the problem I have is this situation is too dissimilar to make that a fair analogy. First of all, it’s different because my name is ON the packages, the neighbor’s name is not. In fact, had I not even opened the packing list (which I thought about not doing), I wouldn’t have known the bill to address. Now, I don’t know of any friends or relatives in PA that would send this to me, I doubt it’s a gift, but the thing I am finding by researching it is, legally it IS a gift. It’s not a gift from the buyer to me, it’s a gift from the seller to me. I have found on the state’s Attorney Generals’ sites of 3 different states, references to a specific Federal law, which states that if you receive a package addressed to you that you did not order, you can consider it a gift. One AG went as far as to suggest that a person asking this question write a letter to the shipper stating that they’d received these items, and as they did not place this order, they considered it a gift. In short, as much as I respect you @marinelife, I have to disagree with your assessment of this being stealing, as that is not what the law says.

The problem I have is that there is legal and there is right, and if I have legal basis to keep them but don’t feel right about it, then I do not want to make any moves, and at this point, I don’t feel right just claiming them (even though it seems pretty clear to me…unless someone can point me to some other legal source that says otherwise…that I’d be fully within my rights and risk no recourse from so doing). But I look at every option, and none of them seems as good as “wait and see”...for example.

1) Mark return to sender and just send them straight back – without knowing the extent of this problem I have no idea if I’m opening myself up to some sort of legal recourse…it could be claimed that by returning the packages I agreed to waive my rights to keep them and accepted the responsibility…then what if there were 4 or 5 sent to my house, or what if UPS screws up on the return? I’m sure it would all work out in the long run, but why risk having a big headache that will be resolved eventually when I can just stress fee wait and see and then on the off chance that the company has just filed a claim rather than spend time researching the issue and trying to convince me (and maybe there are dozens of others involved if someone was slapping multiple incorrect labels on packages.

2) Contacting the buyer…again, no existing relationship there, not appropriate from a legal standpoint I don’t believe, and if this person thought I was scamming HER, she could cause big trouble for me…again, something straightened out with time and headache, but if time is going to be spent, I think I’m “safer” letting the appropriate parties work it out.

3) Waiting and seeing….I guess I see myself as somewhat removed from this situation as there’s nothing I did to cause this to happen. But obviously, my name somehow got into the database of someone selling the exact item I was intending to buy, so I’m a bit concerned about doing nothing, though less concerned than with the potential consequences of other actions. If there’s any legal way I could be held liable for waiting and not contacting the shipper, that’s what I really want to know…but my research indicates that you can keep it, not pay for it AND that you have NO obligation to contact the shipper.

4) Call or email the shipper…but as I discussed before, not having ANY idea of the extent of this problem, how many may this company have shipped to me and others, and how do I know that a company that screwed up by sending 3 shippers to a person who didn’t order any or even have an account with them wouldn’t have things so screwed up that maybe they decide they’ve sent me a hundred of them and I owe them 30 grand because I’ve after all admitted to taking receipt of them, knowing they weren’t meant for me. I know I could fight that, but again…isn’t waiting and seeing a better option.

I may be “over thinking it” but I am flummoxed, and the least risky and time consuming thing seems to be waiting to be contacted and after maybe 3 months, saying I’m going to exercise my legal right, as clearly I’d have a better legal standing to say I genuinely thought this was an intentional gift if after 3 months no one has even tried to get hold of me.

To those who say it’s not mine, or it’s stealing, that’s part of what I struggle with, but I also want to know what my legal rights and responsibilities might be, because I don’t want to fall afoul of my own conscience OR the law.

rooeytoo's avatar

I think Dale, you spend too much time thinking.

If it were me, I would not even consider who made the mistake or if it were multiple mistakes, I don’t care about relationships with any of the other parties, bottom line is, I received merchandise that I did not order, pay for and probably was not intended for me, so I contact the sender and tell them the story. No moral dilemma, no lingering doubts, no mental wrangling, deed done!

dalepetrie's avatar

@rooeytoo – if it were all moral wrangling that would make it easy…it’s the legal aspects that I worry about. Seems if I do the right thing, I’m going against the law, not to mention spitting in the face of karma if such a thing exists. The only reason it’s about who made the mistake or mistakes is the potential implications of any scenario.

SpatzieLover's avatar

What?! How are you going against the law if you do the right thing?

Call customer service of either the sender or the shipping company and explain that you didn’t pay for the merchandise. If you really think the stuff might be yours, give it over to the cops, explain the scenario and wait it out. If it’s all yours somehow, they’ll figure that out for you.

If you’re desperate for one of these, then do the whole wait n’ see scenario.

Someone paid for these and didn’t receive them. Sucks for them if no one stands up to say “Hey, I got something for nothin’ over here.”

funkdaddy's avatar

So, a couple facts that stand out beyond any interpretation…

1) You received $1000 worth of products you didn’t pay for.
2) Someone, whether another customer or the company during their initial purchase, has paid for those products

There aren’t any legal aspects that are going to overrule those two things. Especially if you decide not to at least contact them to see what the deal is. (you’ve spent longer here than it would take to contact the seller)

“Hey, they came with my name on them, I thought they were gifts!” won’t fly very far.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

@funkdaddy In my state that is all it would take. If you didn’t order / pay for it. Items are yours as a “gift” when received. Assume you have not done anything fraudulent, used someone else’s credit card or identity.

marinelife's avatar

You keep using the law as a kind of cover @dalepetrie. The merchandise was sent to you in error. It does not belong to you. Selling it would be stealing.

funkdaddy's avatar

Let’s go to the internet

The Federal Trade Commission has seemingly contradictory advice until you read that they are using the examples below


Unordered Merchandise

…You respond to an advertisement offering a free “trial” pair of pantyhose. To your surprise, you receive four pair with a bill.

…You receive a pocket knife that you never ordered. Despite your objections, the company continues to send you notices demanding payment and threatening your credit rating.

What do you do when you receive merchandise that you didn’t order? According to the Federal Trade Commission, you don’t have to pay for it. Federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.


But I believe this would pretty much clarify your situation


Q. What should I do if the unordered merchandise I received was the result of an honest shipping error?

A. Write the seller and offer to return the merchandise, provided the seller pays for postage and handling. Give the seller a specific and reasonable amount of time (say 30 days) to pick up the merchandise or arrange to have it returned at no expense to you. Tell the seller that you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or dispose of it after the specified time has passed.



Here’s a similar situation where the individual received two laptops back after returning one for repair. He obviously was motivated to find a way to keep both as well. This was one of the responses there.


If it matters, I might inform you that I have been in professional law enforcement for more than 20 years and I have some insight into the interpretation of law. Having said that, this (intended for your consideration) may be of interest to you.

In United States v. HELMS No. 96–1167 Crim. App. No. 31250 the appeals court issued this opinion:

“The mistaken delivery of property to an individual who realizes the mistake and simultaneously forms the intent to steal the property at the moment of receipt constitutes larceny at common law. W. LaFave & A. Scott, 2 Substantive Criminal Law § 8.2(g) at 342–43 (1986).

Furthermore, where the individual does not realize the mistake at the time of receipt but realizes it later and then forms the requisite intent, there is a larceny as well.”

I don’t think you can get any more definitive that that. Assuming that you are open to the notion that keeping the merchandise may in fact be illegal, and you’re not merely soliciting an answer that involves a loophole, let me know if this works for you as a convincing answer.



So it would appear that there are laws on each side, but the laws that would lead you to believe that you can keep anything sent to you are there with the intent of protecting people from receiving items they did not order and then being charged for them when the seller is being unscrupulous.

The laws that are there to protect sellers and legitimate business from unscrupulous people seem to make it clear that it’s theft if you realize the products are not yours.

You could probably argue either in court and maybe you’d win, but your hope would have to be that the company wouldn’t care enough to ever take you to court. And if you end up in court you’d have to assume you’ve already lost, right? Are the juicers really worth it?

Honestly worst case scenario isn’t that you get taken to court for damages by the company but that someone would assume, rightly or wrongly, that you’ve committed a crime and decides to either arrest you or seize your property to make it right. Maybe they end up taking the legitimately purchased one as well and you have to prove you bought one at all.

That to me would be getting hosed. But who’s going to come the aid of the guy who’s defense is “the internet said I could keep ‘em… they were gifts!”?

On the other hand, let’s say you contact the seller and attempt to return them. The seller takes it the wrong way and tries to charge you for the products, or tries to say you’re a criminal, or even sends you a nastygram. Suddenly the law is on your side, the seller is in the wrong and the FTC, the police, AND your conscience are all in your corner. Juicers for everyone my friend.

I didn’t list any of that because I’m assuming @dalepetrie has already done at least that level of research. He’s crazy thorough.

dalepetrie's avatar

@funkdaddy – now THAT’S the kind of answer I was looking for. I was not able to find anything that said I should write to the shipper…or any discussion of circumstance, in fact, I found just the opposite, a legal source saying you have “no obligation” to contact the seller but if you feel you must, you should write a thank you note for the “gift”. This gives me the clarity I need. I will email the shipper. It was exactly the intent of the law that concerned me…the examples are always about someone trying to bill you, which clearly isn’t the case here.

To respond to a couple more contentious assertions, I was never “hiding behind the law”...I believe I made that more than clear and I will do my best to let my respect for @marinelife override my propensity to be offended and resentful of such a comment. And “stealing” to me indicates breaking a law, so I don’t believe that is the proper term and I’m certainly no thief.

And though I understand your incredulity @SpatzieLover if the law says that in this situation I should do A and instead I do B, then I’m going against that law (notice I never said I was “breaking” a law). It doesn’t make me a “law breaker” but it might change my standing with the law if there is some misunderstanding, and I would hope any reasonable person would realize why I’d fear that a company can make THIS mistake could certainly screw things up so badly that all of a sudden, because I’ve now taken a position of admitting I have some merchandise I didn’t pay for, if some screw up makes them decide somehow I got 100 juicers and owe them 30 grand when I can’t come up with them, well yeah, I’d prevail in court, but I don’t want to end up in court. That’s what it boils down to.

To be more succinct, given the value of these items, I’m extremely worried about doing the legal thing in the short term and the right thing in the long term…that’s the ideal outcome for me. Because if I follow the letter of the law, and I can say I did EXACTLY what I’m supposed to do…if I do something else then I can’t say that, and I worry then, could my actions be construed to hold me liable for something (again not worried about ultimate outcome but hassle factor).

Which brings me to clarify that for me, this isn’t about spending a few minutes here and there on my free time discussing this and getting peoples’ opinions, that is not the same as making a call and getting entangled in some huge mess up that results in multiple calls during work hours, having to schedule time to have someone at the house when UPS picks up the packages (at best) or to go to court (at worst).

When I thought the law was that what you were supposed to do in any situation where you were sent something you didn’t order you could consider it a gift and have no requirement to contact anyone, though I was not comfortable with that, it was the least risky course of action and for me the ultimate outcome would be win win, if they contacted me, I’d agree to sending them back at their expense, nothing more, and I would be going above and beyond given the law was on my side. In light of guidance in regards to a specific situation where it was an honest mistake, stating I should contact the shipper, then that’s exactly what I intend to do.

Thanks for everyone’s help and opinions, and all offensive accusations expressed or otherwise are forgiven…ultimately, no matter how this turns out, I have a clean conscience and know I’ve done everything I should do.

dalepetrie's avatar

Company contacted…I’ll keep y’all posted.

marinelife's avatar

@dalepetrie Good. I’m relieved. You are the man I thought you were.

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