LISTEN: Should you keep money mistakenly deposited into your account?

18 April 2016 - 09:15 By Wendy Knowler

What would you do if you learned that a sum of money not due to you had been deposited into your account? Would you keep the money, because it was obviously "meant to be" or "a gift from God" or alert your bank to the error and ensure the money got to the intended account?When a radio presenter asked his listener a similar question recently, I was appalled to hear caller after caller say they'd keep the money, with a variety of creative justifications, including "that a stupid person's loss is my gain".Not so stupid, actually - forget matching account names and branch details - for a transfer to go through, the account number entered must be valid. Get just one digit of the account number wrong and your money will end up in a wrong account.Many desperate consumers have contacted me over the years, having made such a mistake and then been told by their bank that the unintended recipient of their money was not prepared to give it back. Or had spent it all.Clearly if you choose to keep the money, despite knowing it was not intended for you, that's a form of theft. It's called unjust enrichment.But what of the banks' role?On its website, the Payments Association of SA states that in such cases, "the paying customer has the right to the return of these funds through the rule of unjust enrichment and the banks will assist him or her where possible to effect such recovery".In the recent case I investigated, the bank told me it could refund the money if the recipient returned it otherwise the payer would have to take costly and lengthy legal action .Last week, at the release of the Ombudsman for Banking Services' annual report, I asked ombudsman Clive Pillay what his office expected banks to do in such cases.The banks can't just take the money from the "wrong account" and return it to the payer's account, he said, because in some cases, the payer's motives were not pure.What his office advises banks to do is remove the disputed amount and place it in a suspense account until the matter can be resolved.So that's another reason to keep a sharp eye on your bank statement. The sooner you realise your mistake, the greater the chance something can be done before a morally challenged recipient spends the "gift".ATM cases dominated the ombud's caseload last year - 37% and more than half of them involving card swapping. That's when fraudsters "shoulder surf" their victim to see the PIN entered at an ATM, then distract them to nick their card as it emerges from the machine. In a case reported to me last week, a man dropped a R200 note to distract his victim then snatched the card.In 80% of the ATM cases, the ombud found in favour of the bank, because if you compromise your PIN by allowing someone to get close enough to see you entering it, or allow someone to "help" you at the ATM, the bank can't be held responsible for any loss you suffer as a result.These case studies in the ombud' s report is a take on the theme of consumers spending money they know they're not entitled to :RECKLESS LENDING, FECKLESS SPENDINGThe complainant's agreed overdraft limit was R10,000, but accessed more than 10 times that - R100,000 - because of a system error at the bank.Then he accused the bank of reckless lending - extending someone's credit limit without doing an affordability assessment is, in terms of the National Credit Act, reckless lending and a credit provider can be ordered to write off the "reckless" spending.In this case the ombud said it couldn't overlook that the complainant had used and benefited from the funds, knowing he had exceeded his limit tenfold. So it decreed that he repay the money, but the bank should write off its fees and interest. The bank agreed.LOAN REMORSE"Ms Naidoo" was granted four loans by one lender, with a total repayment instalment of R4,500."She immediately realised that it was too much for her to keep up with the repayments, especially as she was already repaying other loans via an emoluments attachment order/or "garnishees".So she turned to the credit ombud for help. Adjudicators concluded she could never afford the repayments and thus the loans had probably been granted recklessly. They negotiated with the lenders which agreed to write off "substantial amounts" in service fees and interest, saving Ms Naidoo R117520. Moral of the story, don't spend money that's not yours to spend or which you know you can't repay.Ombudsman for Banking Service:, Phone: 011-712-1800Credit Ombud: SMS: "Help" to 44786 and you'll get a call back.CONTACT WENDY:Email: @wendyknowler

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