Keeping the proceeds of a bank error in your favour can amount to theft

Community Chest Card, photo by Chriss Potter/ via FlickrIn a famous “community chest” card in the Monopoly board game, if there is a bank error in your favour, then you can collect $£€200. On the card, the lucky customer is pictured almost fainting in astonishment, as a teller presents a wad of notes. Sadly, as with the history of Monopoly, as told by Mary Pilon in her fascinating book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game (2015) (Bloomsbury | Amazon), the reality is far more complicated. As I have said on this site, a bank error in your favour is not a gift from God; an overactive atm is not santa, and the scrooge bank will have to be repaid; and bank errors are not a licence to gamble.

That last warning was in the context of “some technical issues” being experienced by Ulster Bank in June 2012, by which some “account balances … [were] not up to date” at ATMs. I specifically commented that any excess withdrawals in such circumstances would have to be repaid. And I warned that such withdrawals often amount to theft. It is not a surprise, then, to read today’s stories of a woman who stole more than €57,000 from various ATMs across Dublin on 22 June 2012 and today pleaded guilty pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to ten counts of theft from Ulster Bank.

As RTÉ reports:

Woman stole €57k from Ulster Bank during IT failure

Ulster Bank has issued criminal proceedings against a number of people who failed to pay back money withdrawn fraudulently while the bank was experiencing a software failure, a court has heard.

The details of the other investigations emerged during the sentencing of a care worker who stole more than €57,000 from various ATMs across Dublin. Titilayo Kilanko, 38, … told gardaí she used the money to pay for her father’s kidney transplant in Nigeria. … [She] admitted stealing a total of €57,708 by making 115 fraudulent withdrawals from ATMs …

See also Irish Independent | Irish Times | UTV Ireland. This was an IT glich, but the error could be much simpler (for example, higher denomination notes being dispensed, having been misloaded into the ATM), and the principles would still be the same. The erroneous overpayments can be recovered by the bank (whether on foot of the bank’s terms and conditions, or pursuant to a restitution claim to recover a mistaken payment), and so must be repaid by the customer. Worse, as the defendant in today’s case discovered, seeking and retaining the overpayments can amount to theft. Sadly, the community chest card is not a guide to real life – if there is a bank error in your favour, then you should return the $£€200 immediately.