Last week, I took my 13-year-old daughter to the bank to deposit some birthday money in her savings account. We noticed when we got home that the bank had erroneously credited her account with an extra $1,000. My daughter is asking if we need to tell the bank. I know this seems like a no-brainer--of course we should. But this particular bank charges all kinds of fees for services on my daughter's tiny account for which she gets a measly 2% interest. I think it costs her more to keep it there than to keep it under a mattress. Why can't we just wait and see if the bank notices the error?
Dear Slightly Vengeful,
A friend of mine once withdrew $500 from his bank's ATM machine. Only the cash never came out; all he got was a receipt noting that he had made a $500 withdrawal. He called the bank immediately, using the phone by the ATM machine, and the bank employee he talked to was totally unsympathetic. She claimed that their records indicated that the cash had been withdrawn, and she refused to credit his account for the $500. There is no question in my mind that if the bank subsequently made a $500 error in his favor, he would have no moral obligation to inform them of the mistake.
So now let's look at your case. You don't claim that the bank ever took $1,000 from you; rather, you complain that they impose unfair monthly charges on your daughter's account, charges that annoy you but that, I suspect, have amounted to far less than a hundred, let alone a thousand, dollars. I cannot for the life of me imagine why you should therefore be entitled to the thousand dollars, particularly given that if a bank error had inadvertently led to $1,000 being deducted from your own or your daughter's account, you undoubtedly would protest loudly and vigorously. If you learned that the bank had known of the error but decided to say nothing about it, you might even want to go to the police or to a lawyer to charge the bank with theft.
I'm a believer in the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Thus, if you regard the bank's action as fraudulent, acting in the same manner means you would be doing something fraudulent yourself. And think of the lesson your daughter will be taking away. Is that what you really want her to learn?
What I suggest is the following: Go to the highest official you know at your bank, and tell him or her about the error. Then ask the official if, as a courtesy, he or she could find a way to reduce or eliminate some of the charges from your daughter's account. If the bank officer chooses to make some adjustment, good. If he or she doesn't, you might decide to move your daughter's account to another bank. But don't keep money that was given to you by accident. It's not right, and you know it. And most important, you want your daughter to know it too.