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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Can I spend that mysterious windfall?

The Magazine answers...

A woman is awaiting sentencing after spending 135,000 that was wrongly credited to her bank account. But what does English law say about spending mistakenly received money?

In the board game Monopoly, there's a Chance card that says "Bank error in your favour - collect 200".

In the game it's a chance to put a hotel on Mayfair, but in real life you could get yourself in serious trouble by not reporting an error.

Sarah Jane Lee, 20, from Blackburn in Lancashire, had a bank balance of 6.59 when she discovered that a mistake by the Abbey bank had caused the figure to rocket to 135,000.

If an amount is too large to be rightfully yours and you knowingly spend it, you're in trouble

She allegedly spent the money, giving tens of thousands to friends and buying a holiday, various appliances and a new sofa. But it's now end-of-the-line time after she admitted "retaining wrongful credit" and 11 specimen charges of theft.

The 1968 Theft Act says "A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it".

It goes on to say "A person is guilty of an offence if - (a) a wrongful credit has been made to an account kept by him or in respect of which he has any right or interest; (b) he knows or believes that the credit is wrongful; and (c) he dishonestly fails to take such steps as are reasonable in the circumstances to secure that the credit is cancelled."

The act has been updated over the years but the principle remains the same.

Rod Fletcher, a partner in fraud and regulation at legal firm Russell, Jones and Walker, said "appropriating" could mean keeping something you had found which you knew to be valuable.

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"A defence might be you had taken abandoned property, say if you had found a bicycle on the street which had clearly been abandoned. Where it is a large amount of money nobody's going to be able to argue that. It comes down to common sense. The more money it is the more obvious it is."

"You might be able to argue that you did not notice your account receiving 100. If your account had a lot of money, perhaps more."

But 135,000 is likely to be noticed by most millionaires, let alone someone flirting with an overdraft.

And as Brian Capon, of the British Bankers' Association points out, people who think they've had a windfall should consider the opposite situation. How would they feel if someone else had wrongfully been paid their money by the bank?

"If a sum is put into your account, it doesn't mean it is actually yours. Let's suppose some money was due to you and for whatever reason that was credited to my account you would notice that money wasn't in that account and you would want it back."

But there are occasions when a mix-up might be forgiven.

"In certain circumstances you could argue you were in fact expecting a small amount. For a large amount it would be very difficult to argue that you assumed that was your money."

But resorting to the law is only possible if your quarry remains in the jurisdiction. The Mail on Sunday reported this week that a Polish dishwasher had fled the country after being overpaid 8,000 by the luxury London hotel that employed him. The hotel is suing.

Mr Fletcher suggested that while, if the allegations were true, the dishwasher could feasibly be charged with a criminal offence, extradition was hard to envisage.

Those who get dealt a Chance card should take heed.

A selection of your comments appears below.

Somewhat worried by Nigel Burns story as Abbey & Cahoot are one and the same. If they want talk to each other....who will.
Jonathan Kelly, Ashford, Kent

About 25 years ago we found 42,000 wrongly credited to our Natwest account. I went to report it and was repeatedly asked whether I was sure it wasn't ours. Finally convinced, they tracked down the real owner. I commented that I was surprised the owner hadn't missed it and was told. 'It may be a large sum of money to you, Madam, but we have some very rich clients who would scarcely notice'
Judith Franklin, Bristol

I know a few people who've found wallets, taken the cash, then sent the wallets on. It's a similar situation; the cash ain't yours.
Paul Madley, Manchester, UK

In the book "Under Fire" by Oliver North, he claims that several million dollars were credited accidentally to the wrong Swiss bank account and that the US Government were unable to get it back. If only I'd been born in Switzerland...
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

During a transfer 10,000 of my money was accidently credited to someone elses account even though the account name was different. Cahoot informed me that I may only be able to get it back if the other person agrees. It eventually took two months to recover the money as the banks would not talk to each other (Cahoot and Abbey), as they said it would comprimise personal security. I had to relay messages between them. So much for helpful banks these days!
Nigel Burns, Lisburn, Co Down

The law, as written in your article, appears only to apply to male offenders, therefore could she get off on a technicality that she is of the wrong sex. She may also argue that spending money is a genetic attribute predominant in females and thus it is a fault of nature!
Bob, Sunderland, UK

I agree that the whoever receives the 'windfall,' should notify their bank. However, they should charge the bank for this service (as the banks are so fond of doing for us)a flat rate of 10%, regardless of the amount deposited. Perhaps this is not fair, but then banks are NOT fair (14bn bonuses this year, was it?)
Daniel Morgan, Kent, UK

If I make a small amount of error in administrating my bank account - say, not paying a cheque in in time - and I go overdrawn, my bank spots it right away and charges me a huge amount for it. So why if the bank makes an error in my account, am I not only supposed to be the one that spots it, but am not allowed to benefit from it in any way? If we could keep the money, it would teach the banks a valuable lesson about getting things right first time.

We should offer banks a deal - if I find 100,000 in my bank account, I won't spend it, and if I go 5p overdrawn because a cheque doesn't clear in time, the bank won't charge me 30 for it, plus another 5 for the letter telling me it's going to charge me.
Michelle, London

This foolish woman deserves the full weight of the law. If she genuinely believed that she was the rightful owner of 135,000, what made her believe that ridiculous notion. What proper enquiries did she make to identify the owner. Thankfully, Ignorance is no defence in law. The fact that she spent the money quickly and irresponsibly suggests that she believed that the rightful owner would be asking for it back sooner rather than later.
P. Morgan, Birmingham, England

I'd be willing to bet my bottom dollar that the person whose 135,000 the bank 'misplaced' had to argue until they were blue in the face to persuade their bank that they had made a mistake. I dont condone this woman's actions, but, it all seems to be stacked in the bank's favour.
Nick, Hackney

If you found 20 in the street are you going to hand it in? Most probably not. Yes 135k is a lot more than 20 but its still the same concept.
Oliver Witney, High Wycombe, UK

This is typical of today's society where people have no respect for anyone else's belongings or property. Whether it's 1 or 1million, it's still not theirs so they should report it to the relevant people. Looks like this is a case of someone trying to get away with something and getting caught out but the punishiment should fit the crime. She benefited financially so she should be penalised financially. Bankruptcy and made to pay as much of it back over whatever period is necessary. I don't think another prison space should be wasted on her when murderers and rapists are walking free due to over crowding.
Stephen, Wilmslow, Cheshire

Some years ago I had a large amount of money credited to my Halifax account. Being honest I reported it to my branch and had a lot of trouble trying to convince them it was not mine and they hinted that it might be better if I was to just ignore it and accept my "windfall". Eventually the fault was traced but I was left with the feeling that I was silly to have reported it and would have been wiser to have left it in my account gaining interest.
Eddy Robson

Some years ago I checked my balance at one of the leading high-street banks using the cash machine. As the balance was over 4000 pounds more than I expected, I immediately went into the branch to check with a personal banker. I realised straight away that the money was not mine, and asked the manager to remove it from my account there and then. For the next 6 weeks that money remained in my account, despite the fact that I made repeated phone calls and visits to the branch, asking the bank to take it out of my account.

Eventually I received an extremely rude phone call from one of the bank's officials, demanding to know why I had not reported money in my account which I must have know was not mine - and advising me that the money would be removed my account at midnight that day. Basically, they just stopped short of calling me a thief. At 10am the next morning I was back at my branch - removing all of the money from the account that was mine, and tearing up my debit card and cheque book before handing these to the manager with instructions to close my account.
Johnny, Leicester

I was credited 95,000 by my bank. i knew it would be stealing but i rang a solicitors firm anonymously and asked what would happen if i spent it. the person shouted down the phone that i should give it back immediately and should never have entertained the idea of spending what isn't mine in the first place. i contacted my bank who, in a very ungrateful manner, said "thanks".
Michael Homer, Leamington Spa, England

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