What would you do if you awoke one morning to find an extra £250,000 in your bank account, with no idea where it came from? That’s what happened to British writer Leo Benedictus one unusual day. Not knowing where it came from, whether it belonged to him, or how it got there, Benedictus went on the hunt for answers. What followed was a bizarre sequence of events you’ll have to read to believe.
While checking his online account one morning before Christmas, Leo Benedictus was shocked to find that he had a lot more money for presents than expected. An unknown woman had paid £250,000 into his account. But why?
At first he assumed it was a computer glitch, but after logging off and back in again, the money was still there. Benedictus Googled the woman and found several people with the same name. He thought about calling each of them, but quickly chucked that idea because it didn’t seem safe to, as Benedictus reports, “assume you’ll get an honest answer to the question, ‘Excuse me, is this gigantic sum of money yours?’”.
The surprised writer’s next thought was that the money represented some kind of scam, but he dismissed that as well when he couldn’t begin to work out how anyone would benefit from surprising him with a quarter of a million pounds. Maybe he had a long lost deceased relative?
Benedictus finally chose to hold onto the hope that someone had given him the money on purpose, perhaps a patron of the arts who loved his recently released book, “The Afterparty”. The mysterious benefactor was probably just exceedingly shy.
So, Benedictus wondered, was the money his? He pondered withdrawing it all and running away with his wife and children, but decided that even £250,000 wasn’t quite enough for them to live out their lives in comfort. And what if the money wasn’t actually his? Might there be some kind of reward for returning it?
As time went by, the writer logged into his account frequently and says, “There was something hypnotic about the sight of my usual domestic debits splashing on the surface of that enormous balance.” Other times, he forgot briefly that the money was there, until a flashy Aston Martin drove by and got him thinking about a trip to the dealership.
With no idea whether or not he’d be able to keep the money, Benedictus had another thought. “What if I just borrowed the money for a few hours,” he wondered, “and gambled with it? I would return the full amount afterwards, providing I won.” He brushed off a concerned friend who warned him that he’d be in breach of trust law with that course of action. After all, no one would go to the trouble to prosecute if they got their money back.
Benedictus contemplated opening an online betting account, pouring a stiff drink, and rolling the dice. He could get £50,000 richer in five minutes flat…or he could be sent to prison. Leo knew he needed to get some answers about the source of the money.
Needing to know one way or the other about the money, Leo rang the UK Payments Council in search of answers. A representative there explained that the likely cause was an erroneous transfer, whereby someone accidentally keyed in the wrong account number during the transfer process. When that happens, if a real person coincidentally owns the mistyped account number, the money will go through to his or her account.
Although, the rep warned, “if they use that money, essentially they are committing theft.” Not even the interest earned on the money while it resided in the mistaken account could be considered the property of the unwitting recipient. What happened to Benedictus represented the largest event of that kind that the Council rep had ever seen. “I’ve seen it happen with £10,000 or £20,000,” she said, “but you’re the first in my time with a quarter of a million.”
Days passed after Leo’s discussion with the Council rep, and still the money remained.
Finally, after a week of increasingly extravagant fantasy spending, Benedictus got a call from his bank. The money had to be returned. The mystery woman had accidently keyed a “6” instead of an “8” while inputting a sort code. That was all it took to send her comfy nest egg to a complete stranger.
The bank was ready to transfer the money back to its rightful owner, but needed Leo’s permission to do so. He didn’t ask what they would do if he said no. All spending fantasies aside, Benedictus is an honest man who would never knowingly steal money. He could easily imagine how panicked the mystery woman felt.
Just like that, the money was gone. Bendictus reports that he tried to trace the woman after the fact, without success. “I’d like to tell her about the interesting week I had with her money,” he said. “I’d thank her for ensuring that I’ll never make that same mistake – mainly because I no longer have a quarter of a million pounds.”
What would you do in the same situation? Would you report the money or wait and see if the bank contacted you? The temptation to spend would certainly be strong, especially if money is normally tight. However we’d wager that most people would do the right thing and try to track down the owner ASAP. In any case, you’d certainly have a great story to tell, and that’s worth something.