Amazon.com Inc. tells customers that renting textbooks instead of buying them can save up to 80 percent off the purchase price:

“Get your textbooks delivered to your door and save both time and money."

What Amelia SanFilippo, a thrifty college freshman, wasn’t expecting was that the Seattle-based online retailer would withdraw nearly $4,000 from her father’s checking account because she was a few days late returning the book.

Amazon is not your local library branch.

In February, SanFilippo, 19, a cognitive science major, used her father’s debit card to rent Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age for the spring semester at the University of Delaware. Cost $62.70.

The book was due back June 24. She had asked her father, Anthony, to mail it for her. But it slipped his mind while he was packing for a week-long trip. On June 28, she received an email from Amazon with the subject line: “Your Amazon.com rental has been purchased.”

“The item is now yours to keep,” the email stated.

Cost: $3,800.60 — more than 30 times the price of the textbook.

“I was shocked,” she said. “That’s a big chunk of change, especially when the book is $100 to buy.”

When she called her father in a panic the next day, he told her not to worry. They’d never actually charge him that amount, and he’d be home in Springfield, Delaware County, in a day and would return the book then.

“So imagine my surprise when I went to the ATM on Saturday night and saw there was a large sum of money missing,” Anthony SanFilippo said. “I was like, ‘Holy s—, what happened?”

SanFilippo, a writer for a political marketing firm, called Amazon customer service on Sunday, assuming it would recognize the $3,800 mistake and correct it. But company representatives refused to refund the money until they received the book. He’d shipped it that day and gave them a UPS tracking number.

“That wasn’t good enough for them,” he said.

Amelia SanFilippo was alarmed by this email she received from Amazon on June 28. Her father told her not to worry. That was before he'd checked his bank account balance.
Amazon.com
Amelia SanFilippo was alarmed by this email she received from Amazon on June 28. Her father told her not to worry. That was before he'd checked his bank account balance.

SanFilippo said he was told by Amazon that UPS ground shipping usually takes seven to 10 days and that his refund should appear two to three days after that. Not wanting to wait that long, he asked to speak to a supervisor, who would identify himself only as “Mr. Joseph.”

“When I pointed out to him that the sum was exorbitant, he kept apologizing that I was frustrated, but that this was Amazon’s policy,” SanFilippo said.

The saga continued into the next day. And the next. He spent hours on the phone.

On July 1, the SanFilippos received an email from Joseph saying that he had been unable to reach them by phone.

“We look forward to seeing you again soon,” the email stated. “Thank you for your inquiry. Did I solve your problem?”

Anthony SanFilippo promptly clicked the “no” button in the email, and ended up speaking with another customer service supervisor who identified himself only as “Bon.”

“I went through the whole rigmarole all over again,” he said.

When Bon turned out to be no help, SanFilippo tried to go over his head.

“I said I would call Jeff Bezos’ office if I have to," SanFilippo said, referring to the Amazon founder and CEO. “You have to get me somebody above you. He said, ‘Sir, I cannot do that.'”

Amazon asked the SanFilippos to email photographic evidence the book had been shipped back. But their emails to that address all bounced back. That email address did not accept incoming messages, it said.

SanFilippo then turned to his bank to dispute the charge, but had no luck. The following morning, July 2, the $3,800 pending transaction cleared and the money was officially gone from his account.

With Amazon refusing to acknowledge it was an error, SanFilippo started to wonder whether he had stumbled onto some sort of extortion-type scheme aimed at college students.

“What if it was more than one book that was late?” he asked. “What if it was four, five, or six books. Would the tab be $20,000?”

And what if students lost their rented books or had them stolen?

Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, SanFilippo checked his bank account balance and saw that $3,800.60 had been returned. He never got an explanation from Amazon. But his daughter found an Amazon email from February, when she’d first rented the book. Sure enough, the “buyout” price was listed as $3,831.40.

Contacted Wednesday by The Inquirer, Amazon declined to explain how that number was determined.

“This was an error that we quickly resolved directly with the customer, and we have issued a refund,” an Amazon spokesperson said. The spokesperson requested anonymity.

“What if it was more than one book that was late? What if it was four, five, or six books. Would the tab be $20,000?”
- Anthony SanFilippo

The problem does not appear to be widespread, according to consumer advocates in Washington, where Amazon is based.

David Quinlan, vice president of marketing for the Better Business Bureau, said Amazon is an accredited business that meets standards for resolving consumer complaints.

He advised online shoppers to use a credit card — not a debit card — because they provide more protection against unauthorized charges. "That way you could easily dispute the charges and get the money back,” he said.

As for the SanFilippos’ experience, Quinlan said: "That’s crazy. I’ve never heard of something like that.”