Case dismissed: Airlines “steal” from us — why can’t we steal from them?

You don’t have to be a regular reader of this site to know that airlines are trying wring more ancillary fees from their customers. Or that customers are fighting back.

But do two wrongs make a right?

Consider today’s “case dismissed” file, which comes to us by way of a reader named Michael. I’m not going to publish his last name. You’ll see why in a minute.

He writes,

I just read your posts about guessing voucher numbers.

I’ve been buying Delta vouchers on Craigslist at a discount (which I now know not to do after reading your posts about it, although they’ve always worked).

Let me interrupt Michael right there. Yep, big red flag! They’re almost certainly stolen.

He continues,

When comparing two $100 vouchers (14 digit codes) that I recently purchased, I realized the codes were identical except for the last two digits.

So I played around with the numbers. changing the last few digits, and uncovered a bunch of open $100 Delta vouchers that I’ve used on several flights I’ve already taken, and some for future flights.

Note: there are no names associated with the vouchers. I called Delta and said, “I found a code written on a piece of paper in my desk and not sure if it belongs to me or my roommates … they had no name attached to the voucher.”

Is there anything Delta can do to me at this point since there are no names attached to the vouchers? I’m going to stop doing this immediately, but nervous about potential ramifications for my actions.

Michael made the right call. He was basically stealing from Delta, and maybe from the unfortunate passenger who gets the voucher after a flight delay and then tries to redeem it.

If you didn’t earn the voucher, you shouldn’t use it.

Can Delta track his questionable certificate redemption? I’m sure it’s possible. Airlines have poured tens of millions of dollars into systems designed to protect their revenues. Delta could come after Michael for his activity, but it’s unlikely it will unless he’s a serial offender and used a frequent flier account when he made his redemption. (You didn’t do that, did you, Michael?)

As to whether he or anyone else should use a voucher like this, that’s an interesting question. I know there are many air travelers who feel Delta and another airlines would not hesitate to engage in similar behavior if it could make them money — even if they were being deceptive. (For the record, what airlines do when they price their tickets may be unethical — displaying a low fare and then piling on “gotcha” fees and taxes only after a customer makes a purchasing decision — but it’s not illegal, at least not for now.)

Why not return the favor?

The answer is simple: Because you aren’t an airline. You’re better than that.

I see websites and blogs dedicated to manipulating the system, and it troubles me. I don’t think we have to resort to airline-like behavior in order to win this conflict. Wouldn’t it be better to fight for a level, competitive playing field for airlines instead of the oligopoly we now have, and to then reward the best airline with our business?

Yes, it would.

But in the meantime, we’re stuck with airlines trying to pull a fast one with their poorly-disclosed but highly profitable fees — and us retaliating by stealing vouchers.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • SallyLu

    I always think that if people put as much thought and energy into starting a legitimate busines as they do into coming up with ways to defraud, they could make much more money, legally!

  • jennj99738

    How exactly is Delta in the wrong here?  I don’t see anything in the column to say that “Michael” had a problem with Delta, I just see him as stealing vouchers from other customers who earned them. So “Michael” should tell people Delta was wrong in not allowing him to use fraudulently obtained “vouchers?”

  • Christopher Elliott

    You mean, it’s OK to conceal the true cost of an airline ticket and then broadside your passenger with hidden fees? That’s not basic economics, it’s basic business ethics.

  • Michael K

    A captcha is all you would need to address scripts that guess repeatedly.

  • Mark K

    If the ticket is refundable, you can get a refund at any time as long as you did not check in for the flight. 
    This is different than the non refundable tickets most of us see these days that state “no value after departure” meaning you have to rebook before the original flight leaves or you get nothing.

  • Linda Bator

    Irregardless of what shenanigans the airlines pull with ancillary fees, THIS was outright theft!  Shame on him – I would be pretty ticked off if I went to use the voucher I HAD EARNED and he had already cashed in on a “guess” that which did not belong to him!

  • Linda Bator

    So you don’t see a problem with the REAL CUSTOMER getting screwed over?  Because he happened to guess the right number, and it wasn’t EVER his?  You’re just as deplorable!

  • Linda Bator

    He called and checked that the NUMBERS he came up with were valid – which means they WERE issued and not echanged for a ticket by the holder yet.  So he DID screw someone over — and your morality is as deplorable as his if you can justify theft for ANY REASON!

  • Linda Bator

    Actually, the first 3 numbers are always the airline’s code and cannot change.  The other numbers tell them where the voucher came from (airport, city ticket office, etc), with only a few numbers he can play with.  But they WILL track him down eventually, and when they do, hope he enjoys the cell!

  • y_p_w

    I haven’t hard anything quite like that (losing all value of a ticket if not used).  I thought that for the most part if one misses a flight that the airline will likely place the passenger on the next available flight on a standby basis.

    That’s actually what happened with the infamous meltdown at Hong Kong International Airport.  The woman ended up on the next flight out.

  • Andrew from NYC

    Well, it says that “there are no names associated with the vouchers”.  I assumed that meant that the vouchers weren’t given to anyone.

    I do not justify theft.  I am sick of companies defining “theft” the way that benefits them.  Downloading = theft?  Getting duped into buying a $1000 champagne in a club and refusing to pay = theft?  Returning an item to the store after you used it and did not like it = theft?

  • Tony A.

    Good comment! Yeah, exactly what did Delta do to Michael that he felt so entitled to cheat Delta or some innocent Delta voucher holder?

  • y_p_w

    I’ll admit that I once bought a ticket to a football game from a scalper.  I asked ticket services if there was something wrong with it (seats listed didn’t seem to exist), was told it was a “bad ticket”, had the ticket confiscated, and was escorted out of the stadium. I was thinking perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, walked around and watched from the concourse.  I would have spent money at the concessions, but in the end I didn’t have that opportunity.  I suspect that someone inside the organization was selling blank ticket stock that people used to produce real looking tickets. It fooled the ticket takers and ushers.  It sort of feels different justifying it when you’ve paid money.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have displaced anyone (i.e. use up someone’s credits).

    Now, I’m not sure why they make the voucher codes so easy to figure out. I’ve used “rewards points” for buying merchandise, and the codes are alphanumerical with the vast majority of codes unused.

  • Bodega

    It depends on the rules of the fare.  Some fares state that the value of the fare will be forfeited if you don’t cancel prior to departure time.  Now if you show up late, they often will put you on another flight if possible, but if you just don’t show up and don’t call, they can not allow you to reuse the ticket even with a change fee.

    Fully refundable tickets can be refunded well after a flight has departed.  There is no restriction to when you have to request the refund, but the sooner the better.

  • jennj99738

    You have an, uh, interesting viewpoint on this issue.  There are lots of kinds of theft.  There is theft of services, utterance, fraud, conversion, false pretenses, etc and possession of stolen property (which does not require that the person in possession have knowledge the goods were stolen).  I think most people would think buying an item with the intent of returning it after use would be theft. 

    No matter what the business says, the business isn’t the entity bringing the criminal charge–the State does so it makes no difference what the business calls it.  The police and the prosecutor make the decision whether to charge the alleged thief and what to charge.

    Reading the rest of your posts, I still can’t figure out how you think this is OK.  The voucher numbers have either been issued to an innocent party and then fraudulent vouchers using that number were created and sold to a third party or the stock numbers were guessed and the money comes directly from Delta.  Either way, someone isn’t getting paid for a flight that the possessor of the fraudulent voucher is taking.  What would you call this?  It isn’t questionable that this is illegal–it is illegal. 

  • Eric

    Or lack thereof.

  • Tony A.

    Probable next complaint to Elliott – Help I cannot use my fake Delta Voucher!
    Watch this 13SEP11 video from CBS News Atlanta:
    [QUOTE]”We were stopped at the boarding gate and the attendant told us we were
    no longer able to go to Vegas,” Morris said. “The gate agent also told
    us that there were 50 other people sold fake tickets the same way.”[/QUOTE]
    Michael are you listening?

  • Sershev

    Several years ago I saw a lot of Northwest vouchers or
    discount codes on e-bay. I didn’t think there would be any harm, since Wordperks
    credit card was sending discount codes to cardholders every year. I thought
    maybe there are people who received discount codes don’t need to travel any
    time soon and trying to get at least something. So, I paid $20 for one of the
    $100 off of NWA published fare. I received e-mail with the code promptly, used
    the code, it worked, it reduced priced by $100, my credit card was charged for
    the remaining amount, I received e-mail confirmation with ticket numbers. It
    seemed like I saved $80 on a ticket. About a week or two later I received an
    e-mail from NWA to contact them and to pay back $100 within 24 hours or my
    reservation will be cancelled without any refund. The e-mail stated that the
    voucher was attached to someone else’s WorldPerk account and we both (NWA and I)
    are victims of the fraud. Also my WorldPerks account was suspended. I called
    Northwest but they were firm with the decision of me paying $100. I had no choice.
    After I paid the amount of the voucher my reservation and WorldPerks account
    were reinstated. Credit card reversed $20 charge.

  • Sershev

    I thought with Delta you need to provide certificate number and the name to whom the certificate was issued in order to use it. How can you guess both?

  • Richard JJ

    Good point. I’m actually sort of scared now when I think that a lot of people on this site probably have the mindset of ‘the airlines are our enemy so whatever I do to get back is rational’. 

  • Dfjkh

    I voted “yes” but with an eye towards risk.  If I could do it with no risk, then sure.  If I know that there is a certain chance that I would not be able to board, I wouldn’t.  Sorry, it’s not about fairness – that’s not how airlines see things, and that’s not how I will, either.

  • Cyn

    The way I see it, you’re willing to be a thief if you don’t think you’ll be caught.  Isn’t that what most criminals think?

  • Andrew from NYC

    “There are lots of kinds of theft”.  Nope.  There are lots of kinds of CRIME.  For example, according to copyright laws, copying a DVD is a crime.  The problem is that the public in general does not recognize this act as a crime.  People usually KNOW it’s a crime; however, they do not FEEL it’s one.  On the other hand, we all FEEL that THEFT — taking something that doesn’t belong to you with the intent to keep or sell it — is a crime.

    Prosecuting DVD copiers doesn’t do much good: it’s hard to catch them, there are all sorts of “fair use” excuses, lawyers cost money, the public is not very sympathetic…  In this situation, the business starts a P.R. campaign, redefining the crime.  TV and newspaper ads tell us: copying a DVD is THEFT!  is THEFT!!  THEFT!!!  In the USA, this strategy was successful: most of the people here will agree and even explain WHY copying is theft.

    That’s what I mean by businesses defining “theft”.  It DOES make a difference what the business calls it — not because of prosecuting actual criminals, but because you have to prosecute a lot less if the public has been brainwashed in your favor.  That, and the fact that the law is often written to benefit corporations…

    All right.  Now why I don’t think voucher guessing is immoral.  When you go to a casino, you sometimes hit a jackpot (duh :-)).  As a result, you go back with the money you didn’t earn.  It’s the money taken from other people, some of them sick and not able to stop gambling.  Is that immoral?

    Another example.  Airfares fluctuate a lot.  You may have paid 10% of the price the guy in the next seat paid.  Does it cost this much less to carry you than him?  Do you DESERVE a price break?  No; you were just lucky.  Is that immoral?

    That’s what Michael is supposedly doing — guessing numbers in order to get a cheaper airfare.  Delta IS getting paid for the seat, albeit $100 less; how is that different from the example above?

  • Rpbakeriii2001

    Guessing a voucher number and then using it is fraud.  You are not taking from the airlines.  Vouchers are not valid until issued, and they are issued to passengers for various reasons.  Sometimes they are issued “generically”, without a specific name to just issue them faster, but either way, they belong to someone and you took THIER money, not the airlines.  You have not “stuck it to the airline”, you have stolen a fellow passengers money.

  • Rpbakeriii2001

    Yes, airlines have fees — many of those fees are gov’t imposed also.  But airlines do not “pile on taxes”.  Airlines only collect taxes, taxes are charged by the U.S. and other governments — they just make airlines the bad guy by forcing them to collect.  Upto 35% of an airline ticket is due to gov’t imposed taxes and fees.

  • Rpbakeriii2001

    And when the real owner trys to use their certificate and they are advised it was used, they do file criminal charges against the person who fraudulently used it. 

  • TMMao

    What if we could guess credit card numbers and then use them to run up charges?  That’s obviously a case of theft.  How is guessing voucher numbers any different?

  • jennj99738

    Andrew, I’m not going to debate the origin of the various theft statutes from the common law with you.   Now I understand why you think this isn’t a big deal, because it’s not much money.  The problem is that you believe you’re in the majority–that making up voucher numbers and taking money, i.e., revenue, that does not belong to you.  I hope not.  The poll results show you’re probably wrong.  

    Your example about fare fluctuations is absurd.  The airlines build the fares;  the vouchers are credits that are given to passengers, not taken by passengers.  It’s your moral (and legal) compass that’s off, not the vast majority of the other posters here.

  • Carver


    Your post reminds me of why I stopped representing criminal defendants.  They often had very “unique” points of view that justified their criminal behavior.  It was difficult to sit in the my office with a straight face while listening to some of the most inane excuses.

    Incidentally, the analagies you presented, would have given my clients a run for their money for most creative excuse for criminal behavior.

    And ona side note, there are many types of theft, often called larceny.  Some of the delineating factors include whether the theft by force (Robbery), by misrepresentation (Fraud), the value (Grand v. Petty), etc.

  • Carver

    Its really splitting hairs as to whom Michael is stealing from.  If the voucher is unissued but active, then it belongs to the Delta and he stole from Delta.  If the voucher has been issued, then you could argue either way.  In any event, Michael’s behavior constitutes fraud, both civilly and criminally.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Back tracking a bit here…

    I’m appalled at what Michael is/was doing. He’s not stealing from the airlines, but from customers. I’ve been on the receiving end of airline funny money numerous times and one time I was unable to use it because apparently it had already been used.

    I hope Michael wasn’t the one who stole the voucher number from me…


  • PauletteB

    Michael is a criminal, pure and simple. People like him cost everyone else.

  • andrelot

    Being a relatively new arena, online transactions still lack some “generally accepted moral passive guidelines” most people have for brick and mortar ones.

    For instance, if someone were to try printing different coupons’ codes and take them to Home Depot to see if the cashier allows you to redeem that, most people would agree the person’d b cheating. But as online transactions don’t have this physical aspect of requiring someone – for instance – to print several fake tickets and handle them until one is accepted, it becomes easier to not see such action as cheating.

    I’m not going on the defense of airline hideous ticketing prices, like concealed fees not revealed until late on the purchase process (or after).