Law is clear about spending money paid erroneously into bank account

We humans have a tendency to apply morality and integrity selectively, depending on the circumstances.

We’ll nip down a one-way lane when it suits us and curse a taxi for doing the same thing; condemn people who drive drunk but text at the wheel; rail against government corruption but happily pay a traffic cop 50 bucks to avoid a traffic fine; never dream of shoplifting, but, on realising that the cashier didn’t ring up one of our items, or a waiter left a meal or drink off the restaurant bill, keep quiet and consider it good luck.

I’m generalising, of course.

I knew before the Sibongile Mani matter hit the headlines last week, that many people don’t consider spending money that accidentally lands in their bank accounts as theft, having investigated many such “finger trouble” cases over the years.

Men and women of all races and social statuses couldn’t bring themselves to give back the unexpected windfall they discovered in their accounts.

Student Sibongile Mani was an extreme version of the “mistake EFT” scenario; the mistake being a whopping R14.1- million one, and coming from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme – but the principle is the same.

If you spend money that you know is not yours – even if it’s in your bank account – you are committing theft.

That’s not a moral judgement on my part – it’s the law.

In Nissan South Africa versus Marnitz and others, of 2004, the Supreme Court of Appeal found that when money is mistakenly transferred into the wrong bank account, the account holder is not entitled to that money, and should they spend it, that constitutes theft.

But there appears to be a widespread assumption that what lands in your bank account, whether it was intended for you or not, is yours – finders keepers.

“Truth of the matter is South Africans don’t know the law – is it their fault, you may ask? No. She’s done what 80% of students would have done,” tweeted @Kabelo_Mokoatle.

“In my bank account? I’ll eat it very fast and nobody will arrest me, NEVER,” said @bakmokhwae1.

“Whatever I find in my house, my car, my account becomes my responsibility, as a result I own it,” said @Bangisisi.

Some who’d been on the less lucky end of the mistake chimed in, too. “It happened to me,” tweeted “Angela”. “I paid R195 000 into someone’s account and they used it.”

That’s the problem with these costly mistakes.

Those who mistakenly “gift” a stranger when doing an EFT are in for a tough battle, because the bank doesn’t have the right to whip the money out of the wrong recipient’s account without their permission.

The only option for the accidental “blesser” is legal action, which can take anything from six months to two years, and the costs can run into thousands of rands.

So, unsurprisingly, only the finger trouble cases involving hundreds of thousands of rand land up in court. Most opt to write off the money, chalk it up to experience and from then on check payment details obsessively when doing EFTs.

All things considered, the best, and most practical advice for consumers is to be careful when you’re transferring funds electronically. Very careful.

It’s easier for your funds to land up in the wrong account than you think.

As for the moral issue, the quickest way to figure out whether your actions are right or wrong is to ask yourself how you’d feel if someone did that to you.


Daily Dispatch

by Wendy Knowler

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