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Man turns $95K bank error into show

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Posted: 3 pm ET

Ever get a fake check in your junk mail designed to entice you to enter a contest or make an investment? OK, but have you ever tried to cash it? In 1995, Patrick Combs, a motivational speaker and author living in San Diego, did just that. Now he's telling his story as part of a one-man show titled, "Man 1, Bank 0."

The story goes like this, according to a piece Combs recently penned for the Financial Times: After receiving a promotional check for $95,093.35, he decided to cash it as a joke. The joke became a little more serious when the bank went through with cashing it. Combs wisely set the money aside, and waited to see how long it would take the bank to realize its mistake and ask him nicely to return the money.

Eventually, the bank caught up with Combs and demanded its money back, accusing Combs of being a criminal even though, Combs says, he was legally in the right. From the Financial Times:

I fully expected that the junk-mail king who had accidentally mailed out millions of real $95,000 cheques 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."

Most people probably would have just handed over the money. But realizing he had the bank over a barrel, Combs refused to return the money without an apology and an admission of guilt from the bank. The struggle went on for four months, generating national media coverage and providing a wealth of material for a book and the aforementioned one-man show, which Combs took first to New York and then to Europe.

Whether or not you agree with Combs' actions in the case, it does highlight the big power differential between banks and their customers. Many customers have found that when a bank makes a mistake at their expense, banks view their claims with skepticism and drag their feet in returning any money, as was the case with a friend whose story I shared on this blog a few months ago.

On the other hand, when a customer gets a chunk of money through a bank error, banks expect their money back in short order, and many times deploy unpleasant methods such as legal threats and even police force to get that money back when it doesn't happen quickly enough. That's what makes Combs' story interesting: It turns the typical bank/customer relationship on its head, with the bank helplessly asking for their money back while the customer skeptically considers whether to return it.

Of course, some things have changed since Combs had his run-in with First Interstate Bank, which was itself absorbed by Wells Fargo not long after. Banks these days seem to be more sensitive to public criticism nowadays than they were before the public relations Armageddon that was the financial crisis. And the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will probably serve to narrow the power gap between banks.

But as long as banks have billions in assets, powerful teams of lawyers and the ears of politicians throughout the land, it's unlikely that banks and customers will ever be on a level playing field power-wise. That's why I would discourage anyone from trying to emulate Combs' example. In this case, Combs was fortunate to have a legal leg to stand on, but this case could easily have ended up as a criminal matter in different circumstances.

What do you think? Was Combs right to make the bank work to get its money back? What would you do if you were in Combs' situation?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.

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5 Comments
Selah
October 05, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I got one of those checks for 3295.00. It was drawn on USBank, so I took it there to ask about it. The person at the bank refused to give me a definite answer on the validity of the check, telling me,"I can't tell you it's good, but I can't tell you it's bad either." As far as I'm concerned, stupid should hurt.I'm glad somebody beat the bank.

LB
October 05, 2012 at 2:55 pm

banks can steal from the consumer all day long with interest and fees but your wrong for trying to take from them...Pot-Kettle.

LB
October 05, 2012 at 2:52 pm

just like in the movie "Bandits" Bank error, your favor.....what a hoot.

Bob
October 05, 2012 at 12:30 pm

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that because he was aware of his actions, he is guilty. By this argument, if he tried to deposit the check without considering whether or not he was entitled to it, he would be innocent? The action is either illegal, or it is not. While still morally wrong, the facts are that he was mailed a "valid" check and attempted to deposit it. If the check was not valid, the bank would not have accepted it.

The point of this article is to show that the bank accepted a valid check that was mailed in error by someone. The issue at hand should have been between the bank and the individual that mailed the check, not the person who cashed the check. At what point in time are we responsible for our actions? If I write a check to someone and tell them not to deposit it- and they do, who's fault is it? If the bank is too stupid to NOT suspect a $95,000 check and hold it until funds clear, then they are also at fault in this mess.

While I wouldn't let the person keep the $95,000- I do think it's wrong to blame ONLY the person who cashed the check. After all, the check was VALID and accepted by the bank. Like it or not, the person who wrote the check- passed a bad check. The bank executed bad business practices by accepting such a large check without scrutinizing it at all. Let's go after the bank instead for cashing a bad check- if I held interest in this bank, I would be furious why my bank would commit such a act, then bodly go after the man who cashed the check as if he committed a crime.

Marcus Singleterry
October 01, 2012 at 3:02 pm

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will continue to serve to do very little of benefit for consumers, considering how little it has actually done to help consumers since its inception. Lest ye at Bankrate be reminded, the CFPB was the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren. She would have been the director of that ridiculous agency, except that even Democrats knew she would never be confirmed to that position by the Senate. As I recall, the current Director was never confirmed either, but, instead, illegally appointed by the always-responsible President Obama.

Anyway, you may recall Elizabeth Warren's name from more recent news, as Massachusetts' Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown. You might have also read about how the super-intelligent Elizabeth Warren practiced law in Massachusetts without holding a license to do so in that state. If you think someone of such "superior" intellect and genius should hold a position as a U.S. Senator, or that she helped create a federal agency that can do what it was touted as being able to do, you need to have your head examined.

Patrick Combs knew he was not entitled to a $95,000 payment. He was wrong in his successful attempt to cash a check that he knowingly should not have presented to his bank for payment. He should not have been harassed by his bank. Combs should be arrested, tried and convicted of fraud, just like Elizabeth Warren should be arrested, tried and convicted for her crimes.