Another type of misplaced apology: Apologizing for not knowing the penalty


You may remember this story from a few years ago. A college student printed his own bar codes (for inexpensive items), placed them over the bar code for expensive items, then went through the register and ended up paying $4.99 for a $149.99 iPod, for example. Ironically, he would have gotten off lighter if he had merely shoplifted the items, because manufacturing fake bar codes brings the crime to the level of forgery, a felony.

But what really struck me was the nature of the apology. He didn’t say, “I should not have done it,” or even the unconvincing “I didn’t know it was wrong” He said, “I did this not knowing of the serious penalty that lies behind it.” In other words, “I only break the law when the penalty is mild!”

Comments (37)
  1. Kirk says:

    Well, though it’s not quite what he said, assuming a society issues punishments that are scaled appropriately to the severity of the offense, couldn’t this be interpreted as "I did this not realizing how seriously the state views this kind of activity"?

    There’s a reason why we live in a society that doesn’t have the same punishment for every transgression. The kid didn’t realize what he was doing was that different from shoplifting, and has stated that observation in terms of what’s most on his mind at the moment, severe punishment. I can’t fault him for not instantly absorbing the idea that "forgery is much much worse than merely stealing", because I’m not sure if I’ve totally wrapped my head around it either.

  2. Pierre B. says:

    Yes, I agree with Kirk here. I’d classify this as "bone-headed honesty while making a public statement." Which may or may not be a synonym for "misplaced apology."

    I’m not sure why this was classified as forgery though. It surely isn’t illegal to print bar codes, is it? Yes, using them to pay less is obviously illegal, but I would think it’s would be theft. Does this mean if I complain that an item I was buying has the wrong sticker price, instead of getting the 10% discount on the real price I’m entitled to, per law here in Quebec, I could be arrested for felony in the US? (Or at the very least threatened to be, to force me to drop my request?)

  3. thief says:

    Well, this guy was caught when stealing warez for $200,000 (but probably closer to $500k) with fake bar codes, over a period of three years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Swanberg

  4. James Schend says:

    Wow. He seriously (apparently) wrote a letter that starts with "I’m a 19 year old…" and ends with "I’m only a kid!"

    Ok, when you’re 19, you can vote, you can join the military, you’re not a kid. Please no more use of the word "kid" for this case.

  5. tsrblke says:

    @Pierre B.

    It’s not illegal to print barcodes for personal use or for your own business lets say.  (The only reason I can see personal use is to mark your personal possesions.)  But that’s different than making a barcode with a wrong price and passing it off at a store.  In the same vain, I have a program that prints out checks for my business, that’s fine for my use, but if I use it to print out checks for Microsoft, I’ve committed fraud.  It wasn’t the barcode printing itself, it was the use on an object.

    Also, there’s a difference between a stores mistake and your attempt to do something.  Alot of store barcodes have their logo above the barcode, so they’ll know if it’s been done wrong, and alot of stores have policies on that. (They vary by store from sorry our bad but you pay the real price to you get that item for free)  However taking a barcode from another item and trying to put it on there, is wrong, etc. etc.

    Honestly though, I’m surprised this worked.  I thought most stores the barcode only stores the UPC number which the computer then looks up to gather the price, that way if an item goes on sale, it only has to be changed once.  Bad training has a part in this.  With an item like an Ipod you think someone would have realized that it didn’t right up right (i.e. as a different item) unless he bought tons of stuff to cover his back.  Of course I know of a grocery store where people have taken the tags off frozen catfish ($2.99/lb) and put it on lobster tail ($20/lb) and have gotten away with it, granted they now tell the checkers to look when they scan lobster tail to make sure it rings up lobster tail.

  6. Nish says:

    Most people don’t mind doing something illegal when they know that the punishment is not severe (like speeding). I bet there’d be a 99% decrease in speeding incidents if the punishment for speeding was a week in prison :-)

  7. Mikkin says:

    Ignorance of the penalty is no excuse. Worse, if his main regret is faulty risk/benfit analysis then this is the thinking of a hardened criminal.

  8. MJ says:

    tsrblke:

    If you read the rest of TSG article, you’ll see he made "Altec Lansing IPOD" into "Zenith ZE050" and on another occasion made "IDJ IPOD DJ system" to some GPX CD player. On top of that, he said he aimed for cashiers that looked like they didn’t know much about technology.

    I just don’t think one could expect a department store cashier to verify that every item is what their computer displays. They probably scan hundreds (if not thousands) of items daily and typically have pressure to move the line through.

  9. Stephen Jones says:

    —"I bet there’d be a 99% decrease in speeding incidents if the punishment for speeding was a week in prison :-)"—–

    It’s a day in Jail automatically in Saudi for traffic violations, but the decrease has been an order of magnitude less than 99%.

    They sentenced an army captain to 100 lashes for using his mobile phone on a commercial flight, but that doesn’t mean everybody remembers to turn it off.

  10. ERock says:

    My local supermarket has self-checkout. Basically, it’s a scanner and bagging rig attached to a kiosk minus the human cashier and bagger [employee]. It’s great.

    One of the clever bits is the bagging rig. It weighs the contents of the bags. So after you scan something and pop it in the bag, the system looks up the weight of the scanned item in its database and compares it to the change in weight at the bag. If there’s a mismatch, an attentant-viewable light pops up and the system asks to to put the correct item in there.

    It’s not perfect, obviously, as a pound of rice weighs the same as a pound of sugar and definitely doesn’t cost the same, but, I’m surprised most stores don’t have weight-checks even in attended lanes.

  11. Trevel says:

    In that couple’s defense, they could have fallen victim to a prank by a bored kid who saw a loose sticker.

  12. njkayaker says:

    "I can’t fault him for not instantly absorbing the idea that "forgery is much much worse than merely stealing", because I’m not sure if I’ve totally wrapped my head around it either."

    Look at it this way: one can shoplift as the result of an quick decision. Printing the bar codes requires premeditated planning. In the latter situation, there should be many opportunities to concider that this might not be a good thing to do.

  13. Gabest says:

    This reminds me, he should have asked a politican on how to apologize:

    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2007/02/26/1763692.aspx

    "I’m sorry that iPod cost that much"

  14. bd_ says:

    ERock, the reason there aren’t weight checks in attended lanes is it would slow down scanning too much. I’ve worked at a supermarket, and the one thing that’s drilled into everyone is that we need to get our rings per minute up as high as possible. If after every item we had to stop, put it on the scale, wait for it to accept the weight, then move on, it would probably be a 2x slowdown, at least.

  15. Steve Loughran says:

    It was the ease of forging money with scanners,  printers and colour photocopiers that forced the Bank of England to put copyright statements on all their notes. People were using the "I didnt know it was illegal" excuse to try and get off the counterfeiting charges. With a printed copyright statement, its harder to plead complete ignorance as an excuse.

  16. I, and most people, routinely break the law where the punishment is mild. Perhaps the best example is speeding while driving.

  17. Krenn says:

    The other interesting thing is that this is the *second* time he did it; the first time, two weeks earlier, he was caught but just warned. When the "Asset Protection Specialist" (seriously) saw him doing the same thing again, that’s when he called the cops.

    So he must have known the penalty; I’ve got to think the person that caught him the first time gave him a rather complete warning. But he didn’t just ignore the warning, he went back to the same store!

  18. Will says:

    You think this kid is dumb?  I worked as a cashier at a bed, bathroom, and kitchen "big box" store for a couple of years, and I’ve seen worse.

    One day, a middle-class couple in their 30s or 40s came up to the register with a fairly expensive hair dryer.  When I scanned the barcode and the price was displayed, they claimed it should be about $15 cheaper.  I pointed out that the price sticker (the simple kind, without a barcode) matched the scanned price.  So they went back to the bath department and returned with a new box, same model.  "Look", the guy said, "the sticker on this box shows the cheaper price!"  

    I took a closer look at the box, touched the price sticker ever-so-lightly, and it *fell off*, revealing the correct price underneath.

    The couple didn’t even have the courtesy to look embarrassed.  People have no shame.

  19. ATZ Man says:

    @bd_

    A major chain of cheap clothing stores in San Diego county, CA uses weight checks. The worker merely stacks all the merchandise on top of the scale instead of bagging it immediately.

    I think they don’t trust their employees. In some jurisdictions you have to prove to the Court that the employee *knew* it was wrong to steal from the company in order to defend your decision to terminate an employee who steals.

  20. Mahin says:

    Raymond I would like to add something to a blog entry that is already closed. http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2007/08/15/4392539.aspx

    @DGray

    "I’d like to remove my private information from your site, but first I have to disclose additional private information they likely don’t have yet"

    This is only partially true. You *can* remove your info without giving your DOB buy just giving a fake DOB. There will be no way for them to confirm this without your permission.

  21. Chris says:

    As far as speeding goes – there’s another factor to consider – enforcement.  I suggest people break the speed limit more often because they know they’ll likely get away with it, not simply because of the penalty attached.  Law enforcement can’t be everywhere at once and people know it.  They gamble on not getting caught.

  22. Brother Laz says:

    If either the penalty OR your chance to get caught is too low, people ignore the law.

    Speedtraps are actually abundant, but the penalty is minimal if you are a businessman or otherwise have enough money to shrug it off and you are in a hurry. Any attempts here to raise the penalty for common traffic offences (called ‘super fines’ in the press) has been met with fierce protests.

    This applies to other offences/felonies as well. Nobody ever gets caught for jaywalking unless they are terminally stupid and cross in front of a police car. The chance to get caught for spraying graffiti is pretty much zero. And despite what the movie industry wants you to believe, you are more likely to die in a house fire caused by your computer shorting out at night than get caught for downloading torrents all night.

  23. Archangel says:

    "I suggest people break the speed limit more often because they know they’ll likely get away with it"

    I find it more likely that most people think (possibly without realising it) that laws don’t always line up with morals; ie. they don’t feel morally in the wrong by speeding or jaywalking or whatever.

    In this case, the accused has possibly managed to justify it to himself somehow ("Apple makes lots of money, they won’t miss one ipod") so he’s not bothered about having done the deed, just what it’s cost him.

  24. Anon says:

    If this was slashdot the headline would be something like "Printing your own barcodes now illegal?" and it would be in the Your Rights Online section.

  25. Puckdropper says:

    As far as speeding goes, most the time you can go 5-10 mph over the speed limit without any additional danger to yourself or those around you.  In fact, there are places where it’s SAFER to exceed the speed limit for a short time.  (i.e. Passing a car going just under the speed limit on a two lane road.)  In some places I get the feeling that speed limits are there just so that the government regulating the area can write bigger tickets.

    Standard disclaimers apply, I’m not condoning any actions etc.

  26. Tom says:

    It’s interesting to see inaccuracies in reporting getting copied and becoming the story.

    If you read the primary evidence (the statement on TSG) you will see it wasn’t an iPod he tried to buy for $4.99, but a speaker system for one.

  27. Raymond, the only thing wrong about the apology is calling it an apology.

    Everyone has (the right to) different morals, and the laws of any given society may or may not happen to coincide with the morals of any given citizen. At most, they will reflect the views of the majority. Therefore, they are merely contracts to which citizens are implicitly bound by their citizenship.

    Breaking a law does not make you a bad person or sinner – you are simply required to accept the consequences (a value-neutral alternative to "punishment", which doesn’t imply that you’ve done something objectively bad).

    This is one of the few areas where I think the swedish legal system is on to something. It never mentions "punishment"; instead it talks about "påföljder" – consequences.

    Unless you’re living in a very homogenous society, it’s probably a good idea to stay far away from the notion that laws have anything more than a casual relationship to anyone’s moral perceptions of "right" and "wrong".

    Ergo, there’s no need for apologies for breaking the law. You should apologize when you personally think you’ve done something wrong, regardless of whether that something happens to be a crime in your society or not.

    Of course, and this assumes you don’t consider the legal system to be based on religion, in which case you could just claim every law to be derived from the core values imposed by the belief system in question.

    But that would be really, really bad for a society with any pretense of religious freedom.

  28. James Schend says:

    In fact, there are places where it’s SAFER to

    exceed the speed limit for a short time.  (i.e.

    Passing a car going just under the speed limit

    on a two lane road.)

    Just FYI, it’s legal to exceed the speed limit when crossing the center line for the purpose of passing in most states. Doesn’t apply when passing on freeways, as far as I’m aware, only highways and smaller roads.

  29. Earth to Patrick Broman says:

    Patrick Broman, have you actually lived in the real world for any length of time?

  30. njkayaker says:

    "Just FYI, it’s legal to exceed the speed limit when crossing the center line for the purpose of passing in most states."

    I don’t think so!

    Just show one example (eg, a law in one state that says it’s legal to do what you say is legal).

  31. Cooney says:

    Have you lived in the real world at all? I tend to agree with patrick, largely from my experiences in the real world.

  32. David Walker says:

    Steve Loughran:  I doubt if ANYONE who is counterfeiting money thinks it is legal.

    I don’t think the Government needs to put copyright statements on the money in order to prosecute people for counterfeiting.

    If stupid people say "I didn’t know it was illegal", the response should be "too bad you didn’t know that, you’re going to jail anyway".

    Do you have any evidence to back up your assertion that "It was the ease of forging money with scanners,  printers and colour photocopiers that forced the Bank of England to put copyright statements on all their notes"?

  33. Igor says:

    Can’t you see he is a good guy? He PAID $4.99 instead of just stealing it ;)

  34. Cooney says:

    If stupid people say "I didn’t know it was illegal", the response should be "too bad you didn’t know that, you’re going to jail anyway".

    I was hoping for something more like "ignorance of the illegality of counterfeiting currency beggars belief."

  35. Anon says:

    I heard the copyright on Bank of England notes was to stop people making novelty banknotes without a license. Counterfeiting – making notes that look genuine has always been very illegal, but novelty notes have been a grey area.

    @Patrick Bateman, err Broman

    So you’re saying that there is nothing wrong with stealing and the only morality comes from religion? Wow. Given that Sweden is very secular place that would imply that personal morality is essentially obsolete there. And laws don’t really fill that hole. In a free society things like theft, tax evasion or cheating on your wife are impossible to stop legally if most people don’t consider them to be immoral. The police would require draconian powers in a society of totally amoral people otherwise it would collapse into chaos.

    Surely it’s possible to say that actions that harm other people are wrong regardless of religious belief. And if you do that you can teach that religion independent morality to kids in school. That means you can live in a decent society where people have a built in sense of right and wrong that doesn’t depend on someone else watching them. Which is actually a good description of how Sweden has worked in the past, and why I liked living there.

  36. Patrick Broman says:

    Anon, not really. The notion of a one, true morality comes from religion. And yes, you’re absolutely right about theft, tax evasaion etc.

    Of course sensible laws will reflect the majoritiy’s sense of right and wrong. And of course this sense will in most societies be quite homogenous, at least when it comes down to basics like doing harm to others.

    The point is, there’s a huge difference between

    1) Admitting that laws are pragmatically designed to reflect the moral views of the majority without pretending to do so for every single citizen.

    2) Claiming that laws are derived from the one, true set of morals and thus implying that anyone breaking them is objectivey "bad" and should apologize.

    Only the latter approach authorizes us to require remorse. With the former, saying "I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known the consequences" is acceptable and to be expected every now and then.

    There are people in our society with diverse cultural backgrounds, and there will be minorities (or even single individuals) that don’t share the values of our majority. That presumably makes it a lot harder for them to follow our laws than it is for us. Consequently, we should admire them when they do and not expect them to apologize when they don’t – only to suffer the consequences.

    Laws should govern behavior, not thoughts and feelings.

  37. movb says:

    "Nobody ever gets caught for jaywalking unless they are terminally stupid and cross in front of a police car."

    Been there, done that. Nothing happened, I always look left & right, then wait for a big enough gap.

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