Bank Error In My Favor: Collect $95,093.35
A true story By Patrick Combs
[First appeared in the London Financial Times, August 2013 as a cover story of The Arts Section]
It was a cheque, made out in my name, for $95,093.35 and it came in a junk-mail letter from a get-rich-quick company. It was worthless, meant only as a financial tease, a lip-licking come-on. “This is how much money you could soon be making.” What it was never meant for was deposit. But that’s exactly what made the thought of depositing it so irresistibly funny. What could possibly be funnier than depositing a perfectly ridiculous, obviously false, fake-cheque? (Did I mention it had “non-negotiable” clearly written on it?). So, as a joke, I deposited the fake cheque into my bank’s ATM. I felt like a million bucks doing so. I’d never had so much fun at my bank. Come to think of it, I’d never had any fun at my bank until the moment I endorsed the back of this “cheque” with only a smiley face and slipped the Monopoly-like money into to the mouth of the hungry ATM. For the first time ever I walked away from my bank laughing.
What I expected to happen next was a short phone call from my bank. Or a letter informing me of what I already knew, that the cheque I deposited was not real. Admittedly, I also hoped for a compliment on my refined sense of humour. A “Mr Combs, what you deposited was not real but very funny, especially considering your real bank account balance history,” (An amount, always bouncing into overdraft).
But the call or the letter never came and I forgot about my joke. Then, five days later, I returned to withdraw some cash from the ATM, and noticed a much higher than usual bank balance. $95,093.35 higher! The bank had credited my account with the fake, false, stupid cheque!
We all know it should have ended there. Fake cheque. Bank mistake. Give it back. But easier said than done. Especially considering the series of events that happened next.
The first friend I phoned informed me that it was no mistake at all. Just standard bank policy, crediting my account with the dollar amount but putting a hold on all the funds until the cheque bounced. I couldn’t touch the money and my bank balance would, he/she said, be embarrassing again in three days.
But seven long days later the lottery-like amount was still there and I visited the bank where an employee was telling me that the funds were now all available for cash withdrawal. All $95,093.35 was mine for taking. All I had to do was ask. Windfall money begs us to take it and run. But I restrained myself. And gave the bank another two excruciatingly long weeks to do their job, catch up with their mistake, and bounce the cheque. But at the end of three hellish weeks during which about once and hour I was tempted to take the money and run to Mexico where it would be worth twice as much, I was told by my branch manager, “You’re safe to start spending the money, Mr Combs. A cheque cannot bounce after 10 days. You’re protected by the law.”
Now, it’s possible that any thinking man would have asked for a satchel and all the cash right then and there. Me, I must lack the gene for seizing for the moment, because I didn’t touch the money. I drove myself straight to a law library to confirm for myself the 10-day law. This triggered two legal discoveries. First, that my branch manager was wrong. There is no 10-day law that protects you on a bounced cheque. It is, rather, a 24-hour law! In the United States, when a bank receives notice that a check paid into your account has bounced, it has 24 hours to notify you and, if they don’t notify you within this window of time, you are safe to spend the money. Pretty neat, I say. Secondly, I learned that what I thought was a fake cheque was legally a real cheque. In the US, since 1990, a little-known change in the Uniform Commercial Code of law made it so that the words “non-negotiable” printed on a cheque do not invalidate it. It was just a small footnote change in the law that gave no reason why. Nonetheless, what I deposited was, fortuitously, an accidentally real $95,093.35 cheque.
Now I’m slow but not that slow. I withdrew the $95,093.35 and locked it in a deposit box for safe keeping.
I fully expected that the junk-mail king who had accidentally mailed out 40m real $95,000 checks would be calling me soon, begging for his money back. I anticipated a very interesting conversation, as I’m not a big fan of get-rich-quick schemes. But what happened next was quite unexpected. My bank confiscated my ATM card. Locked me out of my account. And sent a man who I can only describe as very, very angry, to call on me.
It was interesting, not just frightening, to be yelled at by the bank’s senior security officer. Frightening because he threatened to send policemen to my doorstep if I did not immediately comply with his request for the money back. But interesting because, up until that terrifying phone call, I thought this was between me and the junk-mailer who’d sent out the accidentally real big money cheques. Until this moment in the saga, I thought my bank and I were good. Good like it said on my ATM card, “Patrick Combs, Customer in Good Standing for 12 Years.”
Politeness, courtesy and compliments on my sense of humour will get you everywhere with me. I can state with certainty that, had I received a call from the branch manager instead of the bank’s ex-military security officer and the manager had said, “Mr Combs, Patrick, may I call you Patrick? I see we made a mistake and cashed a junk-mail cheque. Our bad! May we have the money back?” I’d have returned the $95,093.35 to the bank that same afternoon. I’d have secretly hoped for free checking for a year but, no matter what, I’d have returned the dough, pronto. I’m quick to understand that everyone makes mistakes and it was, after all, just a joke. But the bank’s approach was not polite, or courteous, and neither did it take any responsibility for the mistakes the bank made, which were now piling up. Most other businesses, I like to imagine, would have realised their mistake, approached the customer in a polite civil matter. Not the bank, they began with their attack dog, released their sharks and then later sent in their men in black (literally, not figuratively, but I’m getting ahead of the story).
So my response to the bank’s security officer was simple: “Give me a letter on official bank stationery stating that you are who you say you are, that you indeed work for the bank, and also put in that letter the reason why the bank is requesting the money back, as I’m a little confused on that. When I get that letter we’ll go from there.” And his response, to paraphrase and keep this article profanity-free, was: “Never!”
When I was a boy my mother used to make me write and get letters for everything. I had to write a letter to request a pocket knife from her. I had to get a letter from the man who owned the hardware store who said he’d hire me. I had to give a letter to the old lady across the street to apologise for the racket my friends and I had made. I emerged from my childhood with a peculiar belief in the power of the letter to make everything official. “You’re not getting any letter from the bank. Never!” were fighting words to me.
So I fought the bank for a letter and the bank fought back for the money. My stance was, “No letter taking responsibility for your mistakes, no return of the money which is legally mine.” Word of our little stand-off got out and went viral on the internet filling my inbox with an unending stream of new emails by the second, day after day, ninety-nine percent of which cheered for me to keep the money and stick it to the bank. (A very small percentage of people felt I should give the money back). That was just the beginning. My story exploded in the world press, brought the highest legal authorities in the land on bank cheque law out of retirement, and even caught the interest and enthusiasm of the great prankster himself, David Letterman.
Knowing I had $95,093.35 locked in a safe deposit box that I’d obtained from a junk-mail cheque but which was, by three laws, legally mine, the San Jose Mercury newspaper ran the headline: “Man 1, Bank 0.”
Of course, everyone knew that the bank wasn’t just going to forfeit the fight. Everyone sensed they’d come out swinging. The newscaster Diane Sawyer perhaps stated the public perception about banks best when she commented on my expressed desire for a pleasant resolve with the bank over lunch. She said, to all who were watching the evening news that night: “I wouldn’t count on that lunch, Patrick.”
Diane Sawyer knew what most people feel about banks. Banks don’t do business like the rest of us do business. Banks don’t do lunch to resolve an issue. They send a lawyer. Banks don’t care about your rights. They care about their rights. (Read your bank’s provided explanation of your banking rights, if you don’t believe me.) Banks don’t care about your bank balance. They care about their bank balance. And what banks really don’t do is take responsibility for their mistakes. They enforce penalties for ours.
Today I do a comedic one-man show titled "Man 1, Bank 0" telling my story to theatre audiences around the world. In the show, I'm not ranting against banks like some angry town hall attendee but, rather, giving audiences a full show of laughs over my bank's many mistakes. I love doing the show, and presenting a story that gives an audience a laugh at a bank’s expense. I've always felt that laughter is the best medicine, or in my case, the best transaction.
Miraculously, the show has been a smash-hit in the U.S. where I live, in Canada, Ireland and Scotland. My first big break for the show came from an invitation to perform it at HBO's Comedy Festival. Later I found myself invited to perform it at the prestigious Just For Laugh's Festival in Montreal which turned out to be a great warm up for a month log New York City run Off-Broadway. And then last year I shockingly found myself doing 5 nights at the ultra-amazing Olympia Theater in Dublin to packed houses.
I also took several years and wrote a book that tells the whole glorious story and before it was published it was read by millions on the internet. A book and a touring show – all thanks to banks continually aggravating people. And therein lies an irony. I owe banks so much. Not just for my bank’s blunders, which are the very basis of my show and book, but I also owe a debt of gratitude to all deplorable banking action that has continued to create a ripe environment for my story for 10 years and counting.
At the end of my show and book, I reveal what, in an attempt to teach my bank a lesson in customer service, I did with the $95,000. It's a good ending. Fun and all. But the sweetest ending of all is the phone call I got a couple years ago.
"Hello, we're calling to inquire about Patrick telling his junk-mail check story to our group," said the woman.
"Excellent and who is the group? I asked.
"The Southeastern Conference of Bankers" she replied.
It was a first, bankers wanting to hire me! I'd been waiting 7 years for this call.
"Oh good. I'm available," said I.
"What is your fee for doing the show?" she inquired.
My fee for a theatre show is $5500.
So of course I replied, "For your group, nine thousand, five hundred, ninety-three dollars and thirty five cents."
There was a brief pause.
Then she said, "I get it. Okay. The meeting is in Key West. I'd like to book you for our event. Will you be flying first class?"
See when Patrick is performing the show live at a theatre near you at Man1Bank.com and watch clips from the show.