A new approach to identity theft

This is not a request for legal advice. It’s just a thought experiment, which came to me after reading John Grisham’s “The Partner”.

I understand that if someone mugs me and takes my wallet, or breaks into my house and takes my wallet, then that cash is gone. My only recourse is to get it from the person who stole it. This is because there is there is a physical item (the cash) which has been taken.

I think bank accounts should work differently. If I have money in the bank, and someone who is pretending to be me withdraws that money, who did he steal it from? From me, or from the bank?

It seems to me that even though I have money on deposit in the bank, it is not possible to point to any specific dollar bills and say that they are mine, whereas other dollar bills are on deposit for someone else. It’s all just numbers and accounting. Therefore, if someone fools the bank into giving them some money under false pretenses, the bank is the victim, not me. If I can prove that I am not the one who authorized the transaction, then that should be all that is necessary for the bank to put the money back into my account. I shouldn’t need to rely on any modern laws about identity theft, and I certainly shouldn’t need to rely on any generous customer friendly bank policies.

In the novel I mentioned in the first paragraph, the bank admitted that it had been fooled by an identity thief, but claimed that there was nothing they could do for the proper owners of the account. “The money is gone.” It seems to me that yes, the money is gone, but that’s the bank’s problem, not the account holder’s. Does this make any sense? Has anyone tried this approach?

(Similarly, if someone steals my credit card number, and uses it, and the bank cannot prove that I authorized it, then it should be their problem, not mine.)

I work for a large bank and that’s what we do. If someone fraudulently accesses your accounts or credit cards, we will (the vast majority of the time) refund the money to the customer. It isn’t an immediate thing: we have to do some research and a police report usually needs to be filed, but we will usually give that money back to you and we’ll pursue getting our money back through the legal system. That’s why it’s so important for us tellers to always be checking IDs and verifying account information. If someone steals your wallet and we don’t check to see if the picture matches, check other account information and we just give them the money, we could be out of a job. (So those of you who refuse to show ID, stop giving us such a hard time; we’re just trying to protect both you and our own jobs.)

Thanks! But could you tell us more about the small minority when this doesn’t happen? Under what circumstances would you tell the customer, “We got fooled, but you’re out of luck.”

A bank will make good on the money unless there is a strong suspicion of collusion or other criminal activities.

Here’s a plot line from my favourite soap opera Prisoner (Prisoner: Cell Block H). Doreen is in for forgery and other crimes and is a long termer. Her mother dies and leaves her money. Doreen shares a cell with Helen, a short termer in for prostitution.

Helen gets out in a month and goes to withdraw money out of Doreen’s account.

She gets away with it.

Now Doreen complains. The bank wouldn’t have too much trouble showing, Doreen and Helen were in co-hoots (don’t you just love that word). If Doreen didn’t tell Helen, she had money (how would Helen know Doreen’s mum left her anything), or what bank it was in, or show Helen her signature how could Helen have gotten the info. Added to the fact Doreen was in for forgery and could’ve easily taught Helen how to forge her signature.

This is not 100% proof of course but it is strong circumstantial evidence, there was a consipracy between the legit account holder Doreen and Helen. Therefore the bank wasn’t responsible.

Another example is if the bank could show stupidity on your part. For instance, let’s say somehow the bank can prove your wrote you PIN number on your debit card.

The bank has a responsibility to keep your money safe and stopping others from accessing your account, but YOU also have a responsibilty to see to it that others don’t have information that could help them commit a crime.

Also banks carry insurance against this kind of thing so, often the bank is out nothing (except higher premiums) and the cops are called in to see if they can find any criminal activity

Basically, if you’re willing to press charges and file a criminal complaint, we’ll refund the money. A lot of times, people are trying to scam us, and they’re not going to file a criminal complaint that will end up incriminating themselves. I mean, if Helen and Doreen are working together (like in the previous example), Doreen’s not going to file a criminal complaint that will inevitably show she was scamming the bank. She’d be in a lot bigger trouble then.

If you’re legitimately being scammed, stolen from or otherwise taken advantage of, we’ll help you out. We want your business. We want you to be so pleased with our help that you’ll tell everyone you know about how awesome the people at XYZ bank are when you were in a bad place. It’s good for business for us to take care of people. And if your bank isn’t doing that for you, it’s time to find a new one.