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Finders keepers: How to handle cash that’s not yours

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If you find a wallet or cash in a public place, what are your rights and obligations? Do you have to hand it in, or is it a case of finders, keepers?

Lost leather wallet

If you stumble upon a sum of money, a wallet or a handbag while out and about, the law requires you to take “reasonable steps” to reunite your findings with their rightful owner.

What is reasonable varies from case to case.

For example, imagine you find a winning lottery ticket. It can be quite easy for Camelot, the lottery operator, to track down a ticket’s buyer, so you should get in touch with the company to give them the chance to reunite the ticket and owner.

It follows, then, that if you find a wallet which contains contact details such as bank or business cards, you should either attempt to contact the owner yourself, or hand the wallet in – perhaps to police, or to staff if you find the item at a station or in a shopping centre.

What about cash?

If you found any sum up to £10, you could argue there is not much you could reasonably do to find the owner.

But for large sums, you would have to assume the owner would contact police or other authorities to report the loss.

In this case, you would also be reasonably expected to report your findings.

Don’t forget, though, that if the money is not claimed, you have a legal entitlement to it – so make sure whoever you hand it in to takes your contact details.

Ideally you should also get a receipt.

Account windfalls

The rules are a bit different if you find money mistakenly credited to your bank account for example as a result of errors that bank staff or other customers have made when typing in account numbers.

Jemma Smith from the Payments Council says: “If you've received money into an account as a result of someone's error the money isn't yours, so legally it would be fraud if you withdrew or used it and then refused to give it back.”

She adds that account holders should assume the error will eventually be spotted, and they will be asked to return it.

It is not a defence to say you didn’t notice the mistake and have spent the money anyway – you are still obliged to give it back.

What if you make a mistake?

If you make an error when transferring funds online, it can be difficult to get your money back, especially if it has gone to an account run by another bank.

Jemma Smith says: “You should speak to your bank rather than the recipient's bank.

"Your bank should be prepared to help and do all they can to get the recipient's bank to contact their customer and request that the funds are returned.”

She adds that problems can arise if the recipient's bank can’t get an answer out of their customer: the bank is not allowed simply to take the money without consent.

In cases such as this, prevention is better than cure, so take extra care when typing in account numbers and sort codes and do all you can to ensure they are accurate.

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