Man turns $95K bank error into show

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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.