In November 2019 a Facebook warning about a “new scam” involving cash back began circulating on Facebook, suggesting that cashiers were pilfering cash from customers’ credit or debit cards by surreptitiously engaging the “cash back” option for those who declined to take a receipt:
More than 200,000 Facebook users shared the post (archived here) as of December 2 2019. Against a Thanksgiving-themed text-based status update image, the user wrote:
New Scam: When a cashier asks if you want your receipt, say YES and take it. If you say NO, they hit the “cash back” button.
Although the post claimed the purported “cash back” scheme was a “new scam,” the rumor was neither new nor a scam. In 2013, we wrote about the then-circulating rumor on a page archived here. To near exclusion previous iterations of the rumor involved Walmart, in spite of the cash back functionality being commonplace at point-of-service registers.
A longer version of the claim circulating in October 2013 was self-contradicting, involving a purported keypad malfunction at a Walmart Supercenter:
It happened to me at Wal-Mart (Supercenter [redacted]) a month ago. I bought a bunch of stuff, over $150, & I glanced at my receipt as the cashier was handing me the bags. I saw a cash back of $40. I told her I didn’t request a cash back & to delete it. She said I’d have to take the $40 because she couldn’t delete it. I told her to call a supervisor. Supervisor came & said I’d have to take it. I said NO!
Taking the $40 would be a cash advance against my Discover & I wasn’t paying interest on a cash advance!!!!! If they couldn’t delete it then they would have to delete the whole order. So the supervisor had the cashier delete the whole order & re-scan everything!
The second time I looked at the electronic pad before I signed & a cash-back of $20 popped up. At that point I told the cashier & she deleted it. The total came out right. The cashier agreed that the electronic pad must be defective. Obviously the cashier knew the electronic pad was defective because she NEVER offered me the $40 at the beginning. Can you imagine how many people went through before me & at the end of her shift how much money she pocketed?
And in 2004 the story spread via email, once again involving a shopper’s claims they only discovered the ruse upon careful review of their receipt. As in other versions, the shopper jumps to the conclusion their purported shortchanging is evidence of a widespread scam present in all Walmarts:
Something happened to me this past weekend that I wanted to alert everyone I know to be on the look-out for while shopping at Wal Mart, especially during the busy holiday season. This trip I had a buggy full buying stuff to outfit the deer camp and the usual purchases for home, in other words I had over $200 worth of goods to buy. When I checked out, I ran my Wal Mart credit card through the machine and pressed “No” to the question of “Do you want $20 cash back?”
The checker fooled around with the register and then asked me to run the card again because it did not work the first time. I don’t recall pressing “No” again or even if the question came up on the card terminal. My biggest concern at that time was making sure I picked up all the bags around that carousel they use to bag your purchases. While I was moving my bags back to the cart, I didn’t pay any attention to my receipt. Anyway, the next morning I looked at my receipt (I usually just throw it away without looking at it!) There was a line on it that read “$20.00 Cash Back” and another that said “Change Due 20.00.”
I called the manager and told him what happened and that I did not request $20.00 back, nor did I get $20.00 back. He did not seem a bit surprised. It seems that is a scheme the cashiers use to slip $20.00 in their pockets at the customers expense. The manager said I could come back to the store for the credit but now I wonder how many times this has happened to me in the past that I did not catch. I am not sure if the cashier can override the “No” or if she charged the extra $20.00 during the second swipe of the card. At least this time, she got caught the next day but I would have loved to have caught her in the act the day it happened.
Please pay attention to your receipt and don’t let these thieves steal your hard earned money!!
When the popular October 2013 version was spreading, BuzzFeed reported the claim was both long-circulating and based on fallacious assumptions and typically a firsthand claim it happened to the person spreading the rumor:
It turns out this so-called “scam” actually dates back to chain e-mails in 2004 and has popped up and spread wildly every few years since then. The stories typically include a picture of the receipt, as shown above, and an “it happened to me” anecdote from various Wal-Mart locations, especially Milford, Delaware.
At that time, Walmart explained cashiers were unable to initiate a cash back request from their registers. Functionality for cash back on a transaction appeared only on the customer-side keypad (used also for entering PINs or signing with a stylus):
“Our cashiers have no method of initiating cash back from their register terminal,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said in an e-mail. “The customer is the only one who can prompt the cashier to give cash back.”
Four years after the story spread on Facebook, NJ.com addressed a 2017 iteration of the tenacious rumor. A Walmart spokesperson reiterated that the claim was technologically impossible:
“Our cashier associates cannot engage the ‘cash back’ option,” Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson said. “It must be initiated by the customer.”
And this note to our especially suspicious readers: Sure, there are times when a cashier in any store might reach over and press a button on a credit or debit card purchase, such as the red “cancel” button or the green “agree” or “okay” buttons, but a customer would have to be incredibly distracted, or just plain-old not paying attention, for a cashier to complete a “cash back” request without the customer noticing.
It bears mentioning that as a nationwide scam, the Walmart (or any keypad) cash back theft rumor was simply illogical. A popular iteration concluded by imagining Walmart cashiers were skimming massive amounts of money:
Can you imagine how many people went through before me & at the end of her shift how much money she pocketed?
Retail giants like Walmart maintain strict security departments with storewide surveillance, and monitor cash drawers meticulously. Moreover, many Walmart shoppers are asked to present their receipt to another Walmart employee stationed at the exit; a “scam” predicated on withholding most customers’ receipts would be foiled by the store’s own loss prevention workers before customers even left the store.
The purported scheme as described carried a high risk of detection and arrest for cashiers, and a low probability of evading detection. Walmart (or any retailer) had no clear reason to blindly tolerate theft from its customers by its workers, and employees seemed unlikely to engage in such high-risk behavior for relatively minor amounts of $20 or $40. Even if cashiers en masse decided to engage in such ill-advised petty theft, all retailers would have strong incentive to detect the behavior and call the police immediately. We found no evidence cashiers at Walmart or in any other retail outlet routinely or even rarely stole money by way of the register’s cash back functionality.
In short, a November 2019 Facebook post warned holiday shoppers of a “new ‘cash back’ scam,” a claim which was both long-debunked and more than 15 years old at the time it appeared and again went viral. The claim was not true when it emerged in 2004 or earlier, remained false in 2013 and 2017, and continued both spreading and having no basis in fact in 2019.
Update, 12/3/2019: This page was originally published on October 24 2013. You can see our previous version here.