Simon Read: If a cash machine pays out too much money, are you just a common criminal if you take it?


It seemed like a bonanza to the folk who queued up to be paid out double their money at a Lloyds Bank ATM this week. The stand-alone machine – at Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire – had been loaded incorrectly by a member of staff who put £20 notes in the tenner slot.

It meant anyone withdrawing £100 was paid £200 and so on. When the mistake was discovered on Monday morning word was quickly spread by jubilant people eager for friends to cash in. Local reports suggest that a queue of about 60 built up before bank staff turned up to shut the machine down.

How do you feel about that story? Jealous of a few people who got lucky? Or do you think they were stupid?

They were stupid because what they did was theft and they could be punished for it. The law is quite plain about it. The 1968 Theft Act says: "A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it."

Anyone who turned up to get the free cash knew that it didn't belong to them. Obviously many may have decided that it was the bank's mistake therefore it was OK to take the extra cash.

And there certainly is a widely held view that taking from large corporations such as banks is a victimless crime. However that ignores the fact that as thefts increase, prices will rise as firms recoup their losses from all customers.

But the people who queued up to cash in were also stupid as, by using their cashcards to get the free money, they were also giving the bank all the evidence it needs to track them down.

People have been caught and imprisoned for helping themselves to 'free' money from a cashpoint before. Just over a decade ago a family in Coventry made hundreds of visits to a faulty cash machine and took out £134,410 that wasn't theirs.

They splashed the cash on a new car and air tickets to Jamaica. I wonder whether the splurge was worth it. Three of the family were certainly given time to reflect on that when they were later imprisoned.

Meanwhile in 2009 an Essex couple were given suspended jail sentences after taking £61,000 from a faulty ATM over three months.

Mistakes such as this week's happen. In fact an RBS staff member made the same cock-up just before Christmas in a cash machine in Edinburgh, which then began giving out £20 notes instead of tenners.

Then, as happened this week, word spread quickly as the error was highlighted on social media and people flocked to the machine. The local paper even reported that there were cheers as money was withdrawn.

The cheers ring a little hollow if anyone is subsequently prosecuted for theft. Even if banks decide not to prosecute, people who help themselves to free cash are on morally shaky ground. Why not report a mistake, rather than looking to profit from it?

Twitter: @simonnread

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