Around 15 years ago I went to my local ATM as usual to top up my wallet. There was no one around, but as I got close to the machine I realized that there was a wad of notes already in the cash dispenser.
I guessed someone must have recently made a withdrawal, and for some reason or another, failed to stick around to pick up the cash. Looking up and down the street, I expected to see a confused person fiddling with their wallet, but there was nobody around.
I picked up the wad and counted it out. 100.00. Quite a nice little bundle. What to do next? I didn't even think about it; a lifetime's training in 'doing the right thing' kicked in. I entered the bank, went up to the counter, explained what had just happened and handed the cash over to the teller.
On returning to the office I told my colleagues what had just happened. There was a mixed bag of reactions. Most people were amazed that I had not just quietly pocketed the cash. This shocked me a bit. Surely this would have been a clear-cut case of theft. Taking something that doesn't belong to you is stealing, right?
One person did make me wonder if I had really done the right thing though. How could I be certain, he said, that the teller made sure the money was returned to the rightful owner? For all I knew the 100.00 may have gone straight into his own pocket or straight into the coffers of the bank.
Food for thought, as I hadn't even considered these two possibilities. My intention was not to return the money to the bank, but to the customer. I just assumed that justice would prevail and that the money would go back where it belonged, into the account of the customer who made the withdrawal. Perhaps that was a naive assumption.
There are many similar stories about faulty cash points circulating on the internet. I recently read about a malfunctioning ATM in Sydney, Australia, which accidentally overpaid customers. A long line of customers spread down the street as the word spread that the machine was dishing out 'free money'. In this case, the Australian bank made it clear that it would be taking steps to recover all the money which had been dispensed in error. I'm not sure of the legal situation here. Clearly the bank was in the wrong for operating a faulty machine. On the other hand, the people who took advantage of the situation were blatantly willing to pocket money they knew did not belong to them.
If it happened again today, would I do the same thing? Yes, I'm sure I would. But my situation with finding the 100.00 differs from the Sydney incident in one important way.
The cash I found probably belonged to a single customer. In Sydney the 'free money' belonged to the bank. It's far easier to justify taking money from a faceless corporation than from an individual person. Not so much a crime, and not pre-meditated, but a victimless, spur-of-the-moment opportunistic act.
Let's face it, in the wake of the Credit Crunch, the failure of some high-profile banks, controversy over huge bonuses for bankers and the banking bailout, banks have never been more unpopular. A good time for the banks to make doubly sure their ATMs are functioning correctly!