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Stanford Report, June 2, 1999

Bookstore acknowledges double-billing

Stanford Bookstore customers who made credit-card purchases last year from Oct. 1 through 5 should check their statements to make sure that they were not double-billed, says Peggy Mendelson, president and CEO of the store.

Mendelson reacted to the problem publicly after the Stanford Daily published an article on the subject on May 28.

An error in the bookstore's cash register software, which was installed last September, caused an unknown number of customers to be charged twice. Mendelson says the signal verifying bank approval of credit cards was not working properly on the new system, and cashiers, thinking that the transaction had not taken place, re-entered the amount on the old system, which had been kept in place as a backup.

Mendelson says the software problem was corrected after cashiers complained to the bookstore's Information Systems staff that the verification system was not working properly and it was holding up customers during the fall rush period.

"We certainly apologize for the inconvenience," says Mendelson.

Since early October, up to 450 people have contacted the bookstore or their credit-card companies to report the overcharging, which appeared as two separate, identical transactions on their statements. Mendelson says that $32,000 has been returned to these customers.

It is not known how many other people might have been affected by the malfunctioning system. During the rush period, when many students buy course books, customers make about 6,500 purchases, compared with 3,500 on a non-rush day. "We think the majority of the time [the credit-card system] worked, but there's no way to tell," says Mendelson.

The bookstore did not try to reach potentially affected customers, although Mendelson says it refunded those who reported the problem. "Hindsight is always good on something like this," she says. "We probably should have taken an ad out in the [Stanford] Daily. But we didn't see a pattern because billing patterns were so varied." Billing cycles ranged from 30 to 180 days, she says.

Police Lt. Del Bandy says that Sgt. Rick Tipton conducted a preliminary investigation into the matter. "So far we have detected no criminal intent; however, the case is not closed yet," says Bandy.

Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Al Weger says his office would be able to give an opinion on the incident only if the Stanford police department forwarded the investigation to his office for review. But he was critical of the bookstore taking an "it's not our problem" attitude when the error potentially affected so many customers. "That's disturbing," he says. "I would hope they'd be a little more careful in the future."

Mendelson says the bookstore did not double-bill anyone on purpose. "We had absolutely no intent to violate any law," she says.

Bookstore staff are trying to run reports on sales during the Oct. 1-5 period to see if it can track affected customers who did not contact the store for a refund. "The information we can elicit [may] help us find the missing people," she says.

Earlier plans to find a new manager to lease the operation, which is owned and run independently of the university, are still expected to proceed on June 30, Mendelson says. Double-billed customers who contact the store after the new management takes over will be credited retroactively. SR