That’s my money to keep now, right?

I have this really bad OCD habit of looking down as I walk, in case I spot any loose change in the gutter. I almost lost my shit the other day when I found a two-dollar coin. I cannot even begin to imagine what would happen to my shit if I found multiple millions in my bank account.

While rare, these kind of banking errors do occur. Just ask young Christine Jia Xin Lee, a university student from Sydney, who went on a major spending spree over the course of several months in 2015 after finding that Westpac had accidentally given her an unlimited overdraft facility.

She managed to rack up almost $5 million worth of purchases before Westpac realised its error and cut her off. She was arrested just as she was about to board a flight from Sydney to Malaysia. When asked by the police why she spent so much money, when she clearly did not earn it, she said that she thought her rich parents had given it to her. Hmm…

Westpac pushed for criminal charges against Ms Lee and tried to bankrupt her. She was eventually found guilty after failing to attend court on the bankruptcy matter, and the court held that Ms Lee had to repay Westpac all the money she spent using the funds that Westpac incorrectly credited to her account.

Thanks to Westpac’s mistake, and Ms Lee’s rampant shopping spree, we now know beyond doubt that if our bank makes an error in our favour, and gives us extra money, we do not get to keep it. It is not like the two-dollar coin I found in the gutter, where there was no way for me to know who had dropped it or how I could get the money back to them. In the case of a bank error, the legal position is that the extra money belongs to the bank, you have no right to keep it, and (critically) no legal right to spend it.

What about if you are the one to make the mistake in transferring money to another bank account? If you accidentally transfer money from your account to the wrong person (let’s say, for example, you type in the incorrect account number when doing an electronic transfer using your bank’s online banking system) or if someone makes a transaction using your account without your knowledge (like if your credit card gets stolen or your online bank account gets hacked) you do have some legal grounds to get your money back if you move quickly.

Almost every bank and financial institution, and several online payment services like PayPal, have signed up to a code of practice called the ePayments Code. Under this Code, you are entitled to get your money back if you enter the wrong details when transferring money if you contact your bank or the payment service provider within ten days of the transfer happening and the money is still in the recipient’s account. Obviously, the quicker you contact your bank or the payment service provider the more chance you have of the money still being in the other person’s account.

Your bank or the payment service provider also has to be satisfied that your mistake was genuine. So act stupid when you speak to them. This is never an issue for me.

Now, if your account or credit card has been stolen, or your online bank account gets hacked, and fraudulent transactions have been made using your money or the amount available on your credit card, you can still get your money back in most circumstances. Again, the first thing to do is immediately tell your bank or financial institution when you notice the unauthorised transactions. Yes, this might mean they freeze your bank account for a while or cancel your credit card and send you a new one (meaning you have to set up all of your direct debit arrangements again, which is soooo fucking annoying). But, really, this is a small price to pay to prevent you from losing all your money or having a massive credit card debt racked up in your name by some heartless thief or hacker.

You will not be liable for any charges that are incurred using your accounts or credit cards and will generally be entitled to get your money back if someone has fraudulently spent it, if:

⁃ you can show that you did not deliberately or stupidly contribute to the loss, such as by writing your PIN on your credit card in big bold numbers;

⁃ you report any unauthorised transactions to your bank or financial institution as soon as you notice them; and

⁃ your claim is genuine (not that I’m calling you a liar).