You know what’s a terrible racket? Printer ink. Driven up by artificial markets and complex, incompatible cartridge systems, printers have become one of the most depressing parts of any computing experience—especially if you own one at home.

And they bring out the worst behavior in companies. Hewlett-Packard last year had a scandal on its hands after it added digital rights management to its printers, then turned it off after people complained.

We’ve seen these kinds of problems with other products, like Keurig’s K-Cups, but it’s particularly notable with printers because of how mature and sophisticated the problem has gotten and how blatantly anti-consumer it is.

I’m starting to wonder, even, if the printer industry’s tactics are implicitly encouraging criminal activity, through the creation of black markets, the growth of illicit resales, and the persistence of scammy behavior.

That’s not idle thought, either. Check out these recent stories, all involving printer cartridges, all from the last few weeks:

  1. Last month, a 24-year-old community college student, Blake Skowron, allegedly broke into cabinets in the middle of the night to rob his Phoenix-area school of roughly $2,000 in printer cartridges. It didn’t work out for him, however, because police were waiting for him outside, next to his car—something the guy’s own mother called to inform him about.
  2. On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman revealed a massive $12 million scheme to sell stolen printer ink cartridges on Amazon and eBay. Apparently, the theft scheme involved the use of custom-made vests that made it easier to steal printer cartridges from retail stores. The scheme went on for more than 20 years, across 28 states.
  3. Last week, Australia’s Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal forced a company called Corporate Office Supplies to pay $90,000 to a couple that had been coaxed into buying 2,000 printer cartridges from a high-pressure salesperson. As the Brisbane Times helpfully notes, it was enough printer ink to keep them stocked for 1,700 years. The farming family has just one printer.

(Side note: The printer ink crime beat is incredibly fascinating these days.)

So, what’s the solution here? How do we prevent people from being horrible to other people when it comes to printer ink?

The answer may be that we need to be willing to pay a little more. Recently, Epson has gained attention for its EcoTank printers, which have a higher up-front cost, but get much cheaper in the long run, due to its cartridge-free design. If you need more ink, you just refill the tank.

Maybe we have to suck it up and pay a little more. Or maybe we could print a little less.

Consumers can fight bad behavior with their time and money.

Ernie Smith
Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.