Saturday, April 29, 2006


In the board game Monopoly, there's a yellow Community Chest card that reads, "Bank error in your favor, collect $200." I never think twice about pocketing the windfall -- it's another chit on my way to total board domination.

But board games are not real life, alas. What's the right thing to do when a real-world bank error results in money that isn't yours turning up in your bank account?

I'm pondering this not because I'm fresh off a late-night Monopoly marathon, but because Audrey Coming of Placentia, Calif., e-mailed me recently to report that, in balancing her checkbook a few Saturdays ago, she happened upon a real-life echo of the Community Chest free-money card.

Coming was surprised to notice that she had two outstanding debits: one for $12.19 on Nov. 30 and one for $13.39 on Feb. 16. She recognized both transactions: She had used her ATM card on those dates to make some purchases at a couple of area stores.

"When I called my bank," she writes, "a young lady told me that the electronic transfers usually go through the same day. When she looked at my record, she saw no debits showing for those two transactions."

When Coming asked what she should do, the young lady advised her to wait until June. If the charges hadn't gone through by then, she said, Coming should add those amounts back into her checkbook and forget about them.

Coming found these instructions very disturbing, she writes, perhaps because "I am 77 years old and was raised in a different time." She knows that she made the purchases, which means that the stores will be out the money if her account is not debited for the charges.

"It has happened not once but twice," she writes, "and I'm wondering how many other people it has happened to. The poor merchants will be out a lot of money in a year's time.

"Should I go back to the stores and pay them a second time, which will mean spending extra time and gas, or should I just drop the subject and do as she told me to?"

Letting the stores know that their charges were never debited would definitely be the right thing to do. Coming needn't drive to the stores to do this, though. In fact, she would be more likely to actually reach the people who handle the stores' bookkeeping by placing a couple of telephone calls than by visiting in person.

The stores' managers may decide not to put through the charges, or they may decide that Coming's honesty is worth their eating the unrecorded charges. But those are choices that should be left to the managers themselves.

If Coming does nothing, most likely her checking account will never becharged, and she will be the beneficiary of somebody else's mistake. It would be understandable if, having notified the bank, she simply rebalanced her checkbook and moved on. But her ethical resistance to the idea of not paying what she owes is a good instinct, and one worth listening to.

Meanwhile, Coming concludes, she's looking ahead: "I think from now on I will pay with a check instead of using my ATM card."


Anonymous said...

This has happened to me before. By the time I received my statement and noticed, the company had already sent through another transaction. The clerk was correct to advise you to wait; the store will not go without their charge and will send through the transaction.

Anonymous said...

It won't be the merchant who is out the money, it will be the bank. Stores keep track of the sales that went through their machine. If it was an internal error, they will notice it and correct it in the future. If it is a bank error, the store will contact the bank for their money. Either the bank will come to you for the money later, or they will forgive it, as the woman said. Either way the bank will find the problem and correct it as well.
Stores have internal control to make sure their receipts equal their sales. If not, they're not very good business people and their stores won't last for long.