When visiting full-service restaurants in some places (this seems very common in the US, for example), the server brings a check at the end of the meal detailing the amount owed for food and drink and tax. When paying with a credit card, the customer gives the credit card to the server, who takes it to the back room and swipes it through the computer, printing out additional receipt paper showing that total paid, with blank lines for the tip and total. The server returns the card to the customer with these additional receipts and a pen; the customer writes the tip and/or total and leaves. The server then enters this information into the computer before the final amount to charge the card is complete.

Sometimes, the server enters a higher amount for tip/total than what the customer wrote. The customer can notice this if they (a) write the same amount on their own copy of the slip, (b) take that copy with them and keep it until the credit card statement is available, and (c) compare it to the credit card statement. On occasions where I've noticed this, the written tip was 18-20% of the [pre-tax] subtotal and the charged tip less than a few dollars higher.

From an individual perspective, the amount is often low enough that the time required to look up the credit card company's number, call in, jump through the voice menus and authenticate a couple times (e.g. via the automated system and then again with a representative), file the dispute, scan and send the customer's copy of the receipt (which doesn't necessarily prove what they wrote on the restaurant's copy), and do the requisite follow-up, isn't necessarily worth the value of the difference. The barrier to reporting is lower with some credit cards than others, and generally getting better as websites improve, but can still be relatively high.

From a server's perspective, a dollar or few from each customer can add up to a nice little bump in pay, with very little risk of negative consequences because even in the highly unlikely case a customer does notice, it's even less likely they'll also do anything about it and even if they do, the restaurant usually just gives up the small difference for that particular transaction without having to admit any wrongdoing. (If the difference is low enough, the credit card company won't even pass on the report to the merchant, because they don't want to put resources into following up). So the incentives appear to be well aligned for servers to add a small amount to each tip.

Other than always and only paying in cash, which has its own downsides, what's the customer's best response to this? Have there been examples where customers reporting such issues to the credit card company actually turned out to be the best outcome (e.g. earned the reporter more than minimum wage for the time spent and/or was effective in protecting a much larger set of customers)?

  • @PeteBecker Over less than a few dollars? The police response to that is "Don't waste my time." (I've seen that response even when the amount is well into thousands of dollars, or orders higher if the person stealing it has a good relationship with the right officer, even in the US.) – WBT Sep 18 '18 at 20:11
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    @WBT -- if there's a pattern of theft, the cops should be interested. Of course, if you don't tell them, they won't do anything. If they are corrupt, then, yes, there's no thing you can do short of moving. – Pete Becker Sep 18 '18 at 20:25
  • @PeteBecker Any individual diner can't prove a broad pattern of theft based on just their own transactions, and what the diner wrote on their copy does not prove what they wrote on the restaurant's. – WBT Sep 18 '18 at 20:27
  • If you wrote a 12 dollar tip, and it gets changed to 14 and you notice it, then obviously you change it to zero. – gnasher729 Sep 18 '18 at 21:47
  • @gnasher729 You should write that as an answer. – WBT Sep 18 '18 at 21:49

The appropriate response in this situation (and any when a charge amount from a legitimate purchase is off) is to contact the merchant first, then if they won't/can't help contact the credit card company and inform them of the incorrect charge amount. If it's a typo and you don't care, then don't mention it.

My credit card company flags abnormally large tips and requests that I confirm the amount, I've never had a fraudulent one, but it's nice they are proactive.

  • Even if the difference is reversed, does this work out to more than minimum wage for the time required to go through the necessary steps? The restaurant is incentivized to politely maximize time/waiting/follow-up requirements and in the instances I've seen, waiters are careful not to make the difference "abnormally large." – WBT Sep 18 '18 at 20:37
  • @WBT We can't possibly decide for you whether it is worth it for you to follow up on something like this. It's a personal choice. – DJClayworth Sep 18 '18 at 20:47
  • @DJClayworth I specifically didn't ask about "worth it for me" for that very reason. I instead carefully asked an objective, quantifiable question comparing the time/dollar tradeoff to minimum wage. – WBT Sep 18 '18 at 20:52
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    Beats me, it's trivially easy for me to dispute charges, likely calling the merchant, though the appropriate first step, is going to eat too much time. – Hart CO Sep 18 '18 at 20:59

I eat out twice a day for the last fifteen years, and I hadn't happen that more than two or three times (and each time with cents and sloppily written numbers from me), so I doubt it is anything but rare. Maybe you are going to the wrong places?

It is clearly fraud, and I would contact the manager and let him know (obviously easier when you are not travelling). I typically take a photo of the signed slip (for my accounting), so I would have proof if he wanted, but I would expect a manager to apologize and reimburse without questioning, probably the whole check.
If not, I would definitely go through the hassle with Credit card company, but report it as 'fraud', and not typo. If multiple people do this, the merchant is quickly in deep trouble, as the credit company will ding him with high punitive fees, or simply cancel the contract.

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