What to Do When There Is a Bank Error Made in Your Favor

By Austin Kilham · May 25, 2022 · 8 minute read

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What to Do When There Is a Bank Error Made in Your Favor

If you ever see a bank error made in your favor, you might think, “Free money!” but the truth is, you need to report the error ASAP.

An unfortunate fact of life is that people — and sometimes technology — can make mistakes. Every once in a while, your bank might make an error and deposit cash into your account that wasn’t meant for you. A teller at a bank branch could have entered the wrong digit in an account number as a customer tried to deposit a check or transfer funds, for example. Whatever the reason, you’ll notice that your bank account balance is higher than it ought to be.

While this may seem like a cash windfall and you might be tempted to keep the money, you should report the error to your bank as soon as you notice it. That way, the mistake can be corrected as quickly as possible.

Let’s take a closer look at this scenario and answer these questions:

•  Can I keep money from a bank error?

•  Is there a penalty if I keep money from a bank error?

•  How and when should I report the error?

Can I Keep the Money from a Bank Error in My Favor?

So what happens when money is accidentally deposited into your account? You may wonder if it’s a case of “finders, keepers.” Well, the only time that you can keep funds added to your account is when the money deposited was legitimately meant for you.

When a bank error occurs in your favor, you cannot keep the money — even if the error seems small and likely to fly under the radar. The money isn’t legally yours, so you must return it.

What’s more, the customer whose money accidentally landed in your account will probably notice the mistake and ask the bank to track down the money. Or, the bank will catch the mistake in one of the regular audits that it makes on accounts and withdraw the money again. If the money isn’t in your account, they may ask you why you didn’t report the mistake earlier.

Recommended: Ways to Deposit Money into a Bank Account

What Is the Penalty for Attempting to Spend or Keep the Money?

Now, let’s consider what would happen if you didn’t report and return the money mistakenly put in your account. Even if you are a person who doesn’t pay much attention to your banking details and assume the money is yours, it is still a big problem if you use it. If you spend the money from a bank error in your favor, move it to another account, invest it, or give it away, you could wind up in a lot of hot water.

Failing to return the money may be tantamount to theft, and you could face criminal charges, such as theft of property lost by mistake or receiving stolen property. Criminal charges may be made to get a court order to force you to repay the amount, and in some cases, you could end up with probation or prison time. That’s a very good reason to get the funds back to your bank as soon as you realize there’s been an error.

A few years ago, a Pennsylvania couple went on a spending spree when their bank accidentally deposited $120,000 in their account instead of a business’ account due to a teller error. The couple bought various vehicles with the money and also gave $15,000 away to friends in need.

The bank requested that the couple return the money and then reversed the transfer, causing an overdraft on the couple’s account of over $100,000. The couple was eventually convicted of theft, sentenced to seven years’ probation, 100 hours of community service, and ordered to repay the money they stole. Surely, this is a good example of why there’s no such thing as free money in this situation.

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When Should I Report the Error?

If you discover money in your account and can’t explain where it came from, contact your bank right away, and ask them to figure out the origins of the funds. If it turns out the money really was for you — perhaps a relative deposited it in your account as a gift, for example — your bank will let you know that you are free to access the funds and use them for whatever you’d like.

If the funds weren’t originally meant for you, the bank can start the process of reversing the transaction.

To report the error, first call your bank. Take down the name of the person you talked to and make a note of the time and date. Follow up your call with an email that outlines the details of the error. That way, you’ll have a paper trail of your attempts to correct the issue. The time frame in which to report a bank error varies, so check with your particular account’s fine print to know the specifics.

What Happens if the Bank Does Not Respond?

Generally speaking, banks have 10 days to complete an investigation into an account error. But it is possible the investigation could take as long as 45 days. You can take a look at your deposit account agreement to find out how long it should take your bank.

If nothing has changed after that period of time, contact your bank again to check in on the progress of the investigation. Do not assume the money has somehow become rightfully yours. You don’t want to make a bad situation worse, cause legal action, and wind up eventually having to hire a lawyer to represent you.

What Should I Do So That I Don’t Get in Trouble?

When an erroneous deposit is made to your account, here are the steps you should take to help ensure that you don’t get into any trouble.

Do Not Touch or Transfer Money

First things first, if you notice money in your account that’s not yours, don’t touch it. Don’t spend, don’t give it to someone else, and don’t move it into a different account. Don’t even spend the money if you plan to repay it and report the mistake later. Anything you do to tamper with the money, no matter how benign it seems, could have big consequences later.

Contact Your Bank

As we mentioned above, contact your bank immediately when you notice the error, and keep records of your interactions.

Monitor Your Account

Get in the habit of scoping out your financial accounts regularly, whether it’s checking your credit report, bank account, or even checking medical bills for errors. The fact that even your bank can accidentally deposit money into your account illustrates the necessity of reviewing your bank account regularly.

If you don’t look at your account statement frequently, you may not notice small errors, and these can have a big impact on your personal finances. How often should you check your bank account? There’s no precise answer, but between once a week and once a month can be a good place to start.

For example, say a small deposit of just a few hundred dollars is accidentally made to your checking account. Say, too, that you don’t notice the deposit and spend some of the funds. When the bank discovers the mistake, they can withdraw the funds without your permission, freeze your account, or put a hold on your funds. If you’re still operating unaware of the erroneous deposit, this can wreak havoc on your account. It could cause overdrafts or your checks to bounce. It might gum up the works on any automated bill pay that you may have set up.

As a result, you may be on the hook for overdraft fees, or you may end up paying some bills late.

Keeping careful tabs on your account can help you catch errors so you can avoid these situations and improve your financial health. Consider setting up alerts for deposits in your account. That way you can spot any mistakes as soon as they happen. You may want to consider other automatic ways to monitor your finances, such as credit score monitoring and card security and protection, to help keep your accounts safe.

The Takeaway

Now you know what to do if money is accidentally deposited into your bank account. If a financial institution makes a mistake in your favor, sorry to say, this isn’t the moment to go on a spending spree. The best thing you can do is act quickly to alert your bank. That way, the error can be corrected, the right person can receive the money they need, and you can continue banking as usual. If you fail to do so, you could wind up with overdrafts and other issues when the bank takes the money back. Worse still, you could face legal consequences with far-reaching effects. So do the right thing, and keep your financial life on the up and up.

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Can I keep money credited in error to me?

No, you cannot keep money that is deposited in your account in error. You should alert your bank and have the funds redirected to their rightful owner.

Do I have to report a bank error?

Yes, you should report the error. Contact your bank and report the mistaken deposit as soon as you notice it so the problem can be corrected.

What happens if the bank makes a mistake? Who is responsible and why?

If your bank makes a mistake, you should alert them as soon as you notice it. Your bank will also run regular audits of your accounts, which can help them catch errors. When they do catch a mistake, it must be resolved with the funds going back to the correct account. To do so, the bank can reverse transfers, withdraw funds from your account, freeze your account, or place a hold on the funds without your permission. If the money isn’t there, you will be asked to repay it, and you may face criminal charges.

Photo credit: iStock/fizkes

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