What can you do if you sent money to a stranger by mistake?

What can you do if you send money to a stranger by mistake?

What if you sent $500 to a stranger by mistake and that person refused to give back your money? That’s the shocking situation in which Rossin Asilo recently found herself.

Using the money transfer app Zelle for the first time, Asilo made a simple typo entering her friend’s phone number. That error dropped the cash intended for a memorial donation into the wrong person’s bank account. Unfortunately, that stranger appears to view the transaction as a $500 windfall and will not return the money.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America. Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Now Asilo is hoping that the Elliott Advocacy team can find a way to get her money back. But that request might just prove to be an impossible task.

Warning: If you’re an honest person, I guarantee that this story will make you angry.  (Updated Feb 27)

Yikes! I sent money to a stranger by mistake

In early January, Asilo was saddened to hear about the death of her friend’s mom. Funds were tight, and the family was asking for help with the funeral. She learned it was possible to donate via  Chase using Zelle. Although Asilo didn’t have a lot of extra cash, she was determined to ease her friend’s plight.

“I wanted to donate, but I had never heard about Zelle before,” Asilo reported. “I went into my Chase bank account and I saw that it was an approved way to send money.”

Looking over the information provided by Chase, the process seemed simple enough. After completing the Zelle registration, she downloaded the app to her phone.

“I entered the name of my friend and his phone number,” Asilo recalled. “Then I requested to send $500 to the memorial fund. It was a lot of money to me, but I really wanted to help.”

After she clicked send, the app asked her if she was sure about the transaction. Asilo confirmed and the money was instantly on its way.

Unfortunately, while it’s true that the money was on its way, it wasn’t going to the memorial fund.

Asilo wouldn’t find out for two days, but she had incorrectly typed her friend’s phone number. That mistake caused Zelle (and Chase) to send the money to a complete stranger, who was happy to receive it.

Chase and Zelle: If you sent money to the wrong person, ask him to send it back

Asilo had no reason to suspect that she had misdirected her donation. She received a confirmation from Zelle that the $500 had been sent and accepted. But a few days later, the problem became apparent when she spoke to her friend.

“When he said he hadn’t received the donation yet, I became concerned that something had gone wrong,” Asilo explained. “That’s when I noticed that I had entered the phone number incorrectly.”

Asilo was quickly on the phone with Chase and asked what to do. She was stunned by the response of the Chase representative.

The Chase representative told me there was an easy fix: I could correct my mistake by asking the stranger to send the money back through Zelle. All I needed to do was call the number and ask that person. The agent said there was no way for the bank to reverse the transaction. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, how could this be the way to handle a customer who sent a stranger such a large chunk of money by mistake? 

With a sinking feeling, Asilo realized that Chase was telling her that the mistake was all hers to correct. When Zelle gave her similar instructions, she picked up the phone once again.

Asking a stranger: I sent you money by mistake. Can you please send it back?

With trepidation, Asilo dialed the number of the person to whom she had sent the $500 in error.

A man quickly answered the phone. She says that initially, he seemed pleasant and more than willing to fix the problem.

I told him what happened. He answered in a friendly and understanding tone. I told him that Chase and Zelle said he should just reverse the transaction — send the money back though the app. He said, ‘okay, sure, but let me go home and do that on my computer.’ But in a few hours, he texted me and said he wanted to contact his bank for more information. The next day, he told me that his bank suggested that I file a dispute — he was unwilling to reverse the transaction. I asked him for his full name and he refused to tell me. Then stopped responding to me. 

The consumer first tries to reason with the stranger. "Please can you send my money back to me?"
As per Chase and Zelle’s instructions: asking the stranger to send the money back

Things were starting to look bleak, and Asilo says she called Chase again and asked what to do. She explained that the stranger she had sent the money to by mistake was unwilling to send it back.

Asilo hoped that a reasonable resolution would be for Chase to reverse the charge through Zelle. But that hope was quickly dashed when the bank representative explained a simple reversal wasn’t possible. The bank would need to conduct an official investigation.

Chase then allowed Asilo to open a fraudulent transaction dispute. For the time being, the bank returned the $500. She was hopeful that the money would soon help pay for her friend’s mom’s funeral.

But then…

Chase: You authorized Zelle to send the money to this phone number

Several weeks later, Asilo received terrible news. Chase had determined that mistake or not; she had authorized the transfer of money to the stranger through Zelle. The bank removed the $500 from her account once more.

Desperate for help fighting this battle, Asilo then sent her request to the Elliott Advocacy team.

Please help me! I wanted to send my money to our family member whose mom passed away. They needed help for memorial service, and I used Zelle for the first time. Unfortunately, I mistakenly sent the money to a stranger. I accidentally entered the last digits of the phone number wrong. Can you do anything about this? (Asilo to the Elliott Advocacy team)

Elliott Advocacy investigates: Who is the stranger that won’t give back the $500?

When I read Asilo’s plea, I was immediately determined to get the $500 back where it belonged. Asilo was trying to help a grieving family pay for a funeral. Why should a faceless stranger take advantage of a simple mistake and interfere with that intention?

It’s an exceedingly awful person who would pocket a donation meant for a funeral fund. I decided to find out who was behind that number.

I did some online sleuthing and voila!

That stranger wasn’t faceless anymore.

Elliott Advocacy: Please give back the money that was sent to you by mistake

The phone number turned out to belong to a small, family-run air conditioning and heating company in California. Ironically the owner claimed on his website that he had built his business on “honesty.”

Right.

There on the company’s website was a smiling photo of the stranger who was refusing to return the $500 meant for a funeral fund. He was standing in front of his company’s van with his phone number on display — the one that Asilo has mistakenly typed into the Zelle app.

I hoped a short email or text would put a quick end to this problem.

Hello ****,
I’m a consumer reporter working with the nationally syndicated columnist Christopher Elliott. Rossen Asilo contacted us (Phone number *********).  As you know, she accidentally sent $500 through Zelle to your company’s official phone number (*********). She has texts that she provided to me where you’re discussing the mistake. She asked you to reverse the transaction and you refused.

As this is not your money and it’s meant to go to a grieving family as a memorial donation, we’re contacting you to ask you to send back the the money that she sent to you by accident.

Since there is no basis for you to keep it and your company’s website says honesty is one of your selling points, it seems unusual that you did not immediately reverse this transaction after Ms. Asilo contacted you last month. (Michelle to the owner of the company.)

To ensure that the no-longer-anonymous stranger received my inquiry, I sent several texts to his phone number as well. (The same number to which Asilo had mistakenly sent the $500)

I asked the stranger to send back the money this consumer had sent him by mistake. He ignored my requests.
Asking the stranger to give back the money. “As you know, you’ve received a $500 Zelle payment in error…”

No response from the benefactor of this cash app mistake

The owner did not return my email or text. So I turned my efforts to Zelle. Surely their team would want to take the $500 back and boot this dishonest guy out of their system.

But when I looked at Zelle’s terms of service, I could see that they weren’t on Asilo’s side. It’s up to the consumer to make certain that they’re sending their funds to the correct email or phone number. Once you send a payment to any phone number or email, if that person is enrolled in Zelle, your money is in that person’s hands. There is no mechanism to reverse the transaction in Zelle — just like a wire transfer.

And that makes sense. Of course, Zelle can’t investigate the intention of every person who sends money through the app. The ultimate responsibility lies with the user.

But I thought the Zelle team might want to take a closer look at this particular case. The benefactor of Asilo’s mistake clearly took advantage of the situation. In my mind, it seems a lot like theft. And since the person was no longer an anonymous stranger, I hoped that Zelle and Chase would find the current situation an unacceptable outcome.

Asking Zelle: This customer sent cash to the wrong person. Now what?

Hi Zelle friends!

One of our readers contacted us, who has had a disturbing problem with a Zelle transaction. We hoped your team might be able to provide some insight and possibly be able to help here.

Rossen Asilo was attempting to send a $500 memorial gift to a family friend who has recently lost a loved one. Using the Zelle app, she made a typo while entering the phone number. She included the correct name of the person she was trying to send the payment to, but the payment went to a stranger. That stranger kept the cash even though it was not addressed to him.

Chase recommended that Ms. Asilo ask the stranger simply to reverse the transaction, which seems like an easy fix. Except this person inexplicably refused to give back the money and now he refuses to answer any more texts from Ms. Asilo or my inquiry. I’ve searched for the phone number and it is registered to a company called ************ and **** *****  is the owner. (The phone number associated with this Zelle account and his business is ********). Ms. Asilo’s Zelle account is *********

Is there anything that can be done if a Zelle user sends cash to a stranger (who is easily identifiable) and that stranger refuses to return the accidental payment?  The text messages between **** and Ms. Asilo are below my signature. Thank you for any insight/help you can provide! (Michelle to Zelle)😊

A goodwill gesture from Chase

And soon, both the Zelle and Chase teams agreed that this was not an acceptable outcome.

I’ve not named the air/heating company or owner at the center of this case because the investigation is ongoing at Chase’s level. But the good news for Asilo is that because of her long-term good customer history with Chase, the bank has returned her $500 as a goodwill gesture. Her part of the story is over.

Hi Michelle, Thanks for bringing this issue to our attention. We were able to issue Ms. Asilo a credit and it should be applied to her account no later than Monday. Consumers should double-check the email or phone number of the person they are sending money to before authorizing a Zelle transaction. This will ensure that the money isn’t sent to an unintended recipient. (Chase spokesperson to Michelle)

Although I’m super pleased that Asilo got her money back, I hope this businessman will not be allowed to profit from her mistake. I don’t believe he is the honest person he claims to be.

How to avoid your own money transfer mistake

Sending money instantly to friends and family can indeed be a great convenience. But when used carelessly or inappropriately, these cash apps can also lead to instant and costly problems. Here are some things to remember when using these services so you can avoid your own money transfer mistake.

  • Read all the terms of service (TOS) of the cash app
    Sure, it’s tedious to read many pages of fine print. But entrusting your money to a cash app you don’t fully understand is unwise. Unfortunately, we know that many consumers don’t read through those documents until it’s too late. Each year, our team receives hundreds of complaints from distraught PayPal users who find their accounts (and cash) frozen. (See: Banned from PayPal and she doesn’t know why.) Had these consumers read through PayPal’s TOS, they’d have learned the company can freeze accounts for up to 180 days with little explanation. The bottom line: You’ll learn many important things by reading a company’s terms of service. If you read it all, you might just determine the app isn’t for you. But if you don’t read it and use the service anyway, you’ll be held to those terms. So keep that in mind.
  • Only send money to friends and family
    All of the cash app companies warn users to only send money to friends and family. It’s a mistake to misuse these money transfer services and send money to people you don’t personally know. Be aware that scammers love wire transfers, and cash apps are very similar. Once you send money through these platforms, it’s gone — the bank can’t call it back. Follow the rules set up by Zelle: Never pay a stranger for a product or service using the app. That’s a recipe for a scam. (See: How to easily avoid a costly vacation rental scam)
  • Fees may apply
    Be aware that most, but not all, transfers done through cash apps are free. You’ll want to also check with your bank and/or connected credit card company, since those companies may charge fees even if the app does not.
  • Fair Credit Billing Act does not apply
    The Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers who use credit cards to make purchases. If there is a problem with a product or service, your credit card company can get your money back via a chargeback. The FCBA does not apply to purchases made with debit cards or cash apps. If a seller (even one you know) asks you to pay for a product or service using a cash app, always decline. (See: This is how she quickly lost $1,300 to a stranger using Venmo)
  • Double-check the recipient’s email or phone number
    Before you send money through an app, check and then double-check the accuracy of the email or phone number. Even the tiniest of typos can send your cash sailing into a stranger’s bank account. And unfortunately, as today’s story shows, not everyone is honest. If you make a mistake, your money could end up in the hands of a dishonest stranger who won’t give it back — and you’ll have no way to make them return it. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)

Update: Does this Zelle transaction mimic the Venmo Chargeback Scam?

After this article was published, quite a few readers expressed concern for the recipient of this mistaken cash drop. That reaction took me by surprise. But as I read through the comments, I had to admit, the concerns were not unfounded.

Here’s why.

Recently, criminals have targeted the Venmo platform with a scheme in which they send money into a stranger’s account. They do this using a stolen credit card as the funding source. Then the scammer contacts the recipient of the “mistake” and asks them to send back the money. There is often a sad story attached to the urgent plea for the return of the funds.

When the unsuspecting recipient sends the money back via a new, separate transaction, it’s credited to the thief’s Venmo. The scammer then takes the money and moves on. Later the owner of the stolen credit card that funded the transaction will likely file a chargeback dispute. Now the original transaction is reversed and the money is removed from the victim’s Venmo.

This week, I spoke to our executive contact at Zelle to clarify a number of topics. Primarily, I wanted to know if the Venmo Chargeback Scam could happen using Zelle. I also wanted to know what a person should do if they suddenly discover a pile of cash in their bank account dropped there by a total stranger.

Zelle: The Venmo Chargeback Scam isn’t possible on our platform

So here’s what you need to know about the difference between Zelle and Venmo.

The spokesperson explained that the Venmo Chargeback Scam is not possible on Zelle because these transactions are bank-to-bank transfers. The Fair Credit Billing Act only allows consumers to file chargebacks for credit card transactions. It’s not possible to fund a payment on Zelle with a credit card.

Zelle users should view their transactions like a wire transfer. There is no mechanism for a consumer or bank to call back a wire transfer — or a Zelle payment.

I asked our contact if a bank would have advised its customer not to send back a mistaken Zelle payment. Here’s what she said:

Obviously, we don’t know for sure what his bank told him. But we have agreements with the banks that make Zelle available to their customers. Those banks understand that chargebacks of Zelle transactions aren’t possible. So there wouldn’t be any way for [Asilo] to get her money returned via that route. His bank would have known that. The money would only be returned if he (the owner of the air conditioning company) agreed to send it back. His bank should have been able to facilitate that process. (Zelle spokesperson)

Zelle: “All transactions are irrevocable — so make sure you aren’t sending money to the wrong person.”

Several times during the phone call, our executive contact reiterated that “Zelle transactions are irrevocable.” For this reason, consumers using Zelle should be extremely cautious when sending payments to friends and family. It’s critical to thoroughly read all prompts before hitting the final confirmation.

If you send money to the wrong person by accident, there is no safety net — all Zelle transactions are final.

Chase confirmed that it never reversed Asilo’s Zelle transaction even when it was investigating her complaint (it only temporarily credited her account). The only way it would have reversed the Zelle transaction is if it was proven the receiver had somehow fraudulently accessed Asilo’s account and sent the payment to himself.

Chase and Bank of America agree: Zelle users can’t reverse their transactions

This week, I also spoke to our executive contact at Bank of America about Zelle after one of its customers contacted me about another misguided payment.

Theresa Pasquenelli entered an incorrect area code during a Zelle transaction several weeks ago. That sent her money sailing into the wrong person’s bank account. And that stranger also decided it was a surprise windfall — and quickly spent the $600.

Long story short, I sent $600 to the wrong person through Zelle. I made a mistake with the area code. We called BofA, who told us basically we are out of the money unless we contact the stranger who received it. They also said I could file a police report. We did end up calling the recipient, who was not too thrilled by our call. At first, he said he knew nothing of the situation. But then admitted that he spent the money right after he received it. He no longer had the $600 to give back. 

I asked Bank of America if a consumer sends money to the wrong person by accident is there any way to retrieve it?

If you send money to the wrong person is there a way to get it back?

The simple answer to that question is “no.” If you send money to the wrong person, you won’t get it back unless the recipient agrees to give it back. Neither the bank nor Zelle can/will force the stranger to return your cash.

Hi Michelle, For your background, we do remind customers to ensure that their recipient’s contact information is correct before finalizing the payment. When sending money via Zelle to someone for the first time, the customer sees a screen confirming the phone number and recipient’s first name before completing the transaction.

In this case, the client proceeded with the transaction even though the name did not match her intended recipient. We did reach out to the recipient’s bank to try to have the money returned to our client’s account. [That bank] declined our request, so there is nothing more we can do. (Bank of America spokesperson)

What to do if you receive a lump of cash from a stranger through Zelle

Unfortunately, at this time, there does not seem to be an official way to return money that arrives in an account by mistake via Zelle. There is also no mechanism to refuse a surprise Zelle payment by a stranger. But our contact at Zelle offered these tips for what you can do if you suddenly find someone has dropped money in your account.

  1. Contact the sender
    If a stranger makes a mistake and sends you a wad of cash through Zelle, call the person and verify their identity. The more information the person will give you about themselves, the less likely you are dealing with some type of scam. Then…
  2. Ask your bank for help
    Your bank should be able to facilitate the return of the misguided cash.  If you send back the money with your bank’s assistance and approval, you’ll also be documenting every step of the transaction. That will make it much more difficult to impossible for a potential scammer to claim fraud later.

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