How One Print Error Can Cost a Company or Country Billions (or more)

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May 8, 2012

To err is human. For the Federal Reserve to err when printing 1.1 billion in redesigned $100 bills led to $110 billion in unusable dollars, which is the equivalent to a tenth of the worldwide U.S. currency.

Of course these botch bills can be destroyed over the course of many years, but they still cost the government 12 cents a piece to print, which means the Federal Reserve spent about $120 million printing bills with errors that must be pitched.

Cutting Printing Mistakes Can Save a Business Thousands

Once the ink hits the paper, there’s no turning back. Printers site that they lose one to 20 percent of annual sales because of spoilage (projects that get tossed because of typos, misplaced decimal points, and errors that slip into print). InfoTrends reports that businesses generally toss 31% of all printed material due to errors and obsolescence.

By putting stringent pre-press and proofing processes in place, a company can reduce waste. For example, if a company purchases $2 million in paper each year, saving one copy out of every 100 will yield an annual paper savings of $20,000. Remakes and waste can be measured using the same method.

Switching to print automation drastically reduces errors by removing the human interim step and going straight from database to digital press without the manual need to hand off files (potentially the wrong file).

Slowing down and putting a couple extra proofing passes into your process can mean the difference in tossing millions of brochures instead of gaining millions in new business.

One online business entrepreneur calculated that a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half for Internet based businesses. Not only do sales drop, so does a company’s credibility.

Errors Are a Costly Signs of the Times

We live in a rushed, multi-tasking society. Unless we slow down and concentrate on the moment, we’re very likely to let errors slip through showing up in our print and digital communications.

Finding and correcting errors in public signage across the country turned Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson into national heroes as well as well-known authors. In their book. The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time, Deck and Herson unearthed 400 spelling and grammar errors in storefront signage. Mistakes include cappuccino spelled, cappachino and capucino, and shipping spelled with one “p” or dining room spelled with two “n’s.”

The traveling proofreading friends also flagged menus with “crap-stuffed sole” instead of “crab-stuffed sole.”

History Making Typos

While some typos create a stir and fade from memory in short order, some have endured the test of time and even changed history.


The iron content of spinach became misrepresented because a decimal was placed too far to the right in an 1870 German study. The typo that endured 140 years in print showed spinach having 10 times the iron content of what was actually in the vegetable.


NASA’s ill-fated launch of America’s first inner-planetary problem, Mariner 1, was caused by someone who neglected to put a dot over an “R” in the space formula. Because of the error the $80 million space shuttle had to be detonated when it came flying back to earth.

Mizuho Securities

In 1995 Mizuho Securities tried to recruit J-Com Co.  employees to work for them by offering 610,000 yen per share ($5,041). A typo made the offer appear to be significantly below that at one yen per share. It also had offered 41 times the number of J-Com Co. shares actually in existence – the equivalent of trying to sell more then 40 times something you don’t have and being forced to back it up to any dissatisfied customers.

The error resulted in a $225 million loss for Mizuho Securities.

Life Plus Parole

In the 80s a man named Bruce Wayne Morris was convicted of robbing and killing a man. At sentencing the jury had to decide between execution or being imprisoned without parole, which was worded, “Bruce Wayne would not have the possibility of making parole.”

The typo occurred when the “not” was left out of the sentence. Therefore the jury mistakenly thought they had to pick between death and letting Wayne out to roam the streets so they picked death.

It took 10 years of federal appeals to reverse the decision and cost the state of California millions of dollars.

The magnitude of a misplaced decimal, dash, symbol, or word can cost a company dearly. Here are three specific examples where a typo cost companies millions:

  • A missing comma and zeros in a lender’s lien changed $93 million to $93,000, causing U.S. insurance company Prudential to lose the difference in 1978.
  • A misprinted date caused New York real estate developers to lose tens of millions in revenue.
  • A misprinted phone number in an L.L. Bean catalog caused the retailer to pay a six-figure sum to purchase the erroneous phone number — the exact amount was not disclosed — in an effort to avoid losing customers.

Typos in Numbers

While a misspelled world can be embarrassing and reputation damaging, a misplaced number or decimal point can cost you millions and your career. This is why printed pieces disclosing corporate numbers are highly scrutinized and under the supervision of CPAs, attorneys, and security exchange personnel.

Accuracy counts in financials. Can you imagine a management team releasing their annual report with this disclaimer:

“Some of the figures might be wrong, there’s a few decimal points in the wrong place and some of the calculations are off but you’ll get the general idea.”

Beyond annual reports, the printing of coupons, particularly in the gaming industry, is ripe for errors. Some casinos print millions of dollar worth of gaming coupons per month. One misplaced decimal point could shake the foundation of the house. Here are some ways to make sure your corporation’s printed pieces are error free with its words and numbers.

Staffing & Selecting Outside Vendors

Both your internal staff as well as your print and marketing partners must understand your numbers and financials. They must be in the know to spot something in a headline, graph or coupon that doesn’t make sense. The gaming industry, and in most industries, is not a place for amateurs. Screen and stringently test the grammar and spelling among all your employees not just those in your communication area, and never pick a vendor just because of price. Select based on a quality track record.

Security and Quality Assurance

Make sure data security and confidentiality are on your list of requirements for staff and vendors touching your data. Ensure system security measures are in place before transferring, storing, or printing your data.

Make sure your marketing partner has a model of campaign design with built-in quality checks, from conception to execution. If your vendor doesn’t have a plan, or looks to you for a plan, you may need to choose another vendor.

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