When the Bank Errs in Your Favor

You may recall drawing the "Bank Error in Your Favor" card in a game of Monopoly. Host Debbie Elliott talks with ethicist Randy Cohen about what to do if this happens ... in real life.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

You may recall drawing the bank error in your favor card in a game of Monopoly. Listener Kirk Severtson(ph) did just that in real life. It's posed a dilemma for him that he hopes ethicist Randy Cohen will solve. We have Kirk Severtson on the line now from Potsdam, New York. Hello there, Kirk.

Mr. KIRK SEVERTSON: Hello.

ELLIOTT: And as always we welcome New York Times magazine ethicist Randy Cohen. Hi there, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (New York Times Ethicist): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Kirk, what exactly was the error your bank made?

Mr. SEVERTSON: Well, it began back at tax time when I wrote a check for $199.00 for out of state income tax and when it posted to my account I found that they had only debited $99.00 from my account.

ELLIOTT: And what did you do about it?

Mr. SEVERTSON: Well the first thing that I did, I was concerned that I'd be considered delinquent in paying taxes so I called the taxing authority. And they confirmed that they had indeed received the full amount from me and that according to their systems there wasn't a problem at all. And when I explained the situation to him, he suggested I talk to my local bank. And when I went into the branch office and I spoke with the manager, she confirmed for me that according to their system, their bank didn't make any mistakes.

ELLIOTT: And what did she tell you to do about it?

Mr. SEVERTSON: Well, she first kind of looked at me like I was a little bit crazy for wanting to do anything about it at all, and then suggested that I contact the taxing authority again and have them contact their bank about the error. But the first time I called I waited for 30 or 40 minutes on hold. It was a long distance call and it was more of my time than I wanted to devote to the issue, and I guess my question for Randy was, how far does an ethical obligation oblige me to pursue the matter?

ELLIOTT: Randy?

Mr. COHEN: Three calls. Well, all right, there's no - actually no fixed number. You have an obligation to make a good faith effort to correct an error like that. The kind of ethical principle here is that you ought not exploit another person's innocent error for your own profit, but you don't need to make correcting it your life's work. And I think you've more than passed the good faith effort threshold.

There is one practical thing you might want to do, which is - and it sounds so quaint and old fashioned. You might want to send the bank a letter, because then you have a record in case either of these institutions discovers the error and comes after you, say, 100 years from now.

Mr. SEVERTSON: That would be out of self-protection rather than out of ethical obligation.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, I think so. I think once you actually spoke to people at both institutions where the error was likely to be made, you've made a real good faith effort to correct it, and that's all your are ethically obligated to do.

ELLIOTT: I think once the bank manager looked at me like I was crazy, I think I'd say, okay, fine then.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, but I would wonder where she went to medical school, you know, and has she actually seen you in a clinical setting, Debbie, that her judgment here seems a little bit faulty and frankly a little bit cynical, which that look is saying, I assume is that, gee, you're nuts to be honest.

ELLIOTT: Now, what if we're talking about much more than $l00? What if there is a larger sum involved? Does that change my obligation at all?

Mr. COHEN: No, I don't think it does. I think it's the same deal, that you have to make a good faith effort to correct it but you don't have to make it your life's work, and that goes for all sorts of things. If you find somebody's wallet on the street, you're not trying to exploit their carelessness. You would drop it in the mail. Morally it's not supposed to be the war of each against all. We're not looking for other people to make mistakes so we can pounce on them.

ELLIOTT: Kirk, I understand your bank finally indeed did fix this problem this past week.

Mr. SEVERTSON: Yes, in fact a couple of days ago.

ELLIOTT: What did it take to finally get their attention?

Mr. SEVERTSON: Actually I did nothing. I assume that someone went through and found the difference and tracked it down and took another $100 out of my account for it.

ELLIOTT: Kirk Severtson, thank you for writing to the ethicist.

Mr. SEVERTSON: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: If you've got a question, or a few hundred bucks, for Randy Cohen, write to us. Go to our Web site NPR.org. Click on contact us and selective WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word ethics in the subject line and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, good to talk to you again.

Mr. COHEN: Thanks so much, Debbie.

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