What to Do When the Bank Makes a Mistake in Your Favor

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KEY POINTS

  • Bank errors are rare, but do happen.
  • If there's an error in your favor, the money is not yours to keep.
  • Spending money that's not yours could land you in jail.

What would you do with an extra $30,000 in your bank account?

Imagine that you're out running errands. Suddenly, you remember that you owe the little girl next door $40 for Girl Scout cookies. Your mind is laser focused on Thin Mints and Samoas, as you drive to the nearest ATM. It's not until the ATM spits out a receipt that you realize that you have an extra $30,000 in your checking account.

What would you do?

Do not spend that money

Worldwide, banks handle billions of transactions every day -- successfully. However, there is always the chance that human error will result in a mistake made in your favor. If there's ever a deposit to your account that you don't recognize, don't spend it.

A man named Mike

Several years ago, NBC News interviewed a man we'll call Mike. Mike had just sold his Brooklyn, New York apartment and went into his bank to deposit the proceeds check. Rather than type in the actual deposit amount, the visibly tired teller deposited $700,000 into Mike's account.

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Mike describes what happened next. He said it was as though a million things ran through his mind in a split second. "Can I keep it, can I spend it, can I invest it and give it back before anyone notices?" Mike recalls thinking.

The answer is no. Spending money that is accidentally deposited into your bank account is illegal and can land you in seriously hot water.

A Georgia teen

A Georgia teenager was unfortunate enough to learn just how hot the water can be.

It all began in March 2014, when a 70-year old account holder sold some land, and deposited more than $30,000 in his checking account. It just so happens that the 70-year-old shares a name with the teenager. Rather than putting the check into the older man's account, a teller incorrectly deposited it into the teen's account.

A woman who raised the teen described how excited he was to find an extra $30,000 in his account. Evidently, the boy and his former caretaker adhere to the rule, "finders keepers," and soon, nearly all the money had been spent. The teen purchased a slew of items for himself, including a BMW.

The young man was charged with felony theft for spending money that was not his. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years on probation and ordered to repay the money. While it may seem as though he got off easy with probation, the teen will have a felony conviction permanently on his record.

What you can expect

Banks run regular audits of customer accounts. There is no doubt the bank will find the mistake and reverse the transaction. If the money has been spent, you can expect them to contact the police.

Claiming that you didn't notice the error does not get you off the hook. If the funds are spent, you're the one held responsible.

What to do if your bank account suddenly balloons

Whether the error leaves you $300, $3,000, or even $30,000 richer, the first thing to do is contact your bank and let them know. It may be painful, but that simple call will keep you out of trouble.

Once the bank has been made aware, check your account each day to ensure that the transaction is reversed. In the meantime, pretend the money is not there.

In short, treat the "found" money as you would treat a wallet that falls out of your grandfather's pocket. Pick it up and hand it back.

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