What happens if my cash goes astray?
What would happen if I made an online transfer but the money didn't arrive in the other account?
In the age of online banking, transferring money between accounts is as simple and everyday as paying in a shop.
Which makes it all the more troubling that, sometimes, bank transfers can go wrong.
When transfers go wrong
Wrong sort code or account number
Human error is an inevitable part of life - and is especially prevalent when we're required to type in meaningless strings of numbers, such as sort codes and account numbers.
If we mistakenly enter a wrong digit, then the money could go to the wrong party.
If this is the case, we need to contact our own bank as soon as possible. They can't stop a payment that's already been made, but most will act on our behalf in trying to track it down and recover it.
Even if the sort code and account number have been entered correctly, a bank error could result in the transfer not being made.
In that case, the first step is to ask the sending bank to provide evidence that they have made the transfer.
If the bank can show that they did indeed make the payment, then they should also carry out an investigation and try to recover the missing money.
Recovering incorrect transfers
However it happens, when an incorrect transfer has been made, reporting the error is the first order of business.
While the money still legally belongs to the person making the payment (see below), there are plenty of stories attesting to the fact that recovering it often isn't easy or guaranteed.
The good news is that since May 2014, there's been a much clearer procedure for the banks to follow - and in early 2016 the guidelines were bolstered even more in the customer's favour.
The procedure is contained in Payments UK's "voluntary code of best practice on misdirected payments". Although the code is voluntary, and only 15 banks have signed up to it, they include all the big high street names.
As soon as we let our bank know we've made a mistake with a payment - whether it's just after we hit "send" or some time later - the guidelines state that they have two working days to act.
This usually means getting in touch with the receiving bank to see what's happened - and since January 2016, if there's clear evidence of a genuine mistake, our bank will also ask them to make sure the money isn't spent by mistake.
The receiving bank will then contact the person whose account stands to gain from the error, to give them the chance to dispute that the payment was made by mistake.
Frightening as this may sound - we're relying on a stranger to be honest - most claims are undisputed, and the money should be returned to us within 20 working days.
There's more on what to do when it's us who receives money in error below.
When there's a dispute
Problems with recovery typically arise when the owner of the receiving account disputes the claim. In some cases this is deliberate, while in others it's because they're unaware of a problem - say, if the account is unused for some reason.
Before the introduction of the misdirected payments code, there were no hard and fast rules for the banks to follow.
Now, however, if the bank can't reclaim the funds straight away, they must launch an investigation and report back to the person who made the payment within 20 days.
The bank must also let us know about the options available to us should it look like they can't recover the money.
In some cases this won't be as bad as it sounds. Banks investigating payments made in error aren't supposed to be able to remove disputed funds from an account if it would put the recipient into unauthorised overdraft, for example.
Unfortunately, that remains the case if the reason the recipient would go into overdraft is because they knew the money wasn't theirs but spent it anyway.
In cases such as these, one of the options available to us is taking the recipient to court.
How to prevent transfer disasters
As so often in life, prevention is better than cure.
Check the recipient details
Be aware that for transfers between accounts based in the UK, names are irrelevant - it doesn't matter whether we include one or not, and whether the name on the receiving account matches the one we provide.
The Faster Payments website emphasises this:
"It's vital to double check the sort code and account number before sending a payment: payments are processed only using these numbers".
Payments UK therefore advise anyone making a transfer to double and triple check the recipient's sort code and account number before hitting "send" - and they provide a sort code checker to help with the first part.
It can't tell if a sort code is for the "right" account (i.e. it can't give any details about the name of the account holder, or of the account itself) but it can confirm whether the account is suitable for the type of transfer.
We should also check the amount, and make sure to include a payment reference if one is required - this is often found when making payments to utility companies.
For payments from one person to another - say to a friend - it can worthwhile making a much smaller "test payment" of £1 or less before transferring the full amount.
As well as making sure the details are correct, it'll give both parties a feel for how long it'll take - and if something goes wrong, it's much less traumatic.
The good news is that when it comes to making an international transfer, we're often required to provide far more than an easily mangled string of numbers.
Institutions in countries that use the International Bank Account Number (IBAN) system - which include most European nations - can carry out transfers with just the numerical information.
Because of the way IBAN works, our money is far less likely to be swallowed by the wrong account and far more likely to bounce back to us - letting us know something has gone wrong somewhere.
However, some UK banks - including Lloyds, HSBC, and Barclays - will only permit international transfers to be carried out when we provide the full name and address of the recipient, even if they're in a country that uses IBAN.
Furthermore, anti-money laundering laws in the US and some other countries mean that we need to be able to provide as much detail as possible about the recipient, and get it all right, before the payment can go ahead.
Recovering from disaster
When it comes to dealing with UK banks and building societies, the key is to cite the misdirected payments code.
That's because the terms and conditions provided by many banks contain sentences like this, from Lloyds and TSB - who are both signed up to the code:
"If a payment does go to the wrong person because you gave us the wrong details, we will use reasonable efforts to recover the payment and, if we manage to do so, we may charge you our reasonable costs."
By citing the code, we're effectively telling our bank that we expect them to follow best practice when trying to recover our money - and if they don't live up to that expectation, we're entitled to complain.
If we do then feel the need to make a complaint, we should first do so according to the bank's own formal written complaints procedure, which should be available upon request. Should that not work, the next step is the Financial Ombudsman.
If you receive money in error
It may hearten those who make payment errors to know that unintended recipients of their money aren't entitled to go on a spending spree.
According to a spokesperson from Payments UK, which oversees the payments system, "if they use that money, essentially they are committing theft".
The law is indeed pretty clear on the matter.
Under the 1968 Theft Act, "a person is guilty of an offence if: a wrongful credit has been made to an account kept by him... or he knows or believes that the credit is wrongful; and he dishonestly fails to take such steps as are reasonable in the circumstances to secure that the credit is cancelled."
Treating a bank error as a lottery win is obviously unlawful - in 2008, a woman from Blackburn was prosecuted after spending an £135,000 accidental deposit from the then Abbey National - but most incorrect payments aren't quite so noticeable.
As noted above, the bank is entitled to recover the money, so should our balance be healthier than we expect it's worth taking a good look at the "money in" column on our statements.
Anyone who receives money and can't account for its provenance should inform their bank; if there's the suspicion that it's been sent in error, set the money aside until any doubt has been cleared up.
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