Thanks to the implementation of name checks when we send money, these errors should be less of a problem than they used to be.
However, if we do send money to the wrong account, we should contact the bank immediately to try and get the money returned.
The bank should help and the person who has received the money isn't lawfully allowed to keep it - although that doesn't always work in practice.
When transfers go wrong
Although the implementation of a new security check when sending money called Confirmation of Payee (CoP) has reduced the number of misdirected payments, it's still possible we might send money to the wrong account.
We look at CoP in more detail later in this guide, but first let's run through what will happen if money is sent to the wrong account.
Wrong sort code or account number
Human error is an inevitable part of life - and is especially prevalent when we're required to type in meaningless strings of numbers, such as sort codes and account numbers.
If we mistakenly enter a wrong digit, then the money could go to the wrong party.
If this is the case, we need to contact our own bank as soon as possible. They can't stop a payment that's already been made, but most will act on our behalf in trying to track it down and recover it.
Even if the sort code and account number have been entered correctly, a bank error could result in the transfer not being made.
In that case, the first step is to ask the sending bank to provide evidence that they have made the transfer.
If the bank can show that they did indeed make the payment, then they should also carry out an investigation and try to recover the missing money.
Recovering incorrect transfers
However it happens, when an incorrect transfer has been made, reporting the error is the first order of business.
While the money still legally belongs to the person making the payment (see below), there are plenty of stories attesting to the fact that recovering it often isn't easy or guaranteed.
We should contact our bank as soon as we realise there has been a problem with a payment and they will usually act within two working days.
This usually means getting in touch with the receiving bank to see what's happened - and since January 2016, if there's clear evidence of a genuine mistake, our bank will also ask them to make sure the money isn't spent by mistake.
The receiving bank will then contact the person whose account stands to gain from the error, to give them the chance to dispute that the payment was made by mistake.
Frightening as this may sound - we're relying on a stranger to be honest - most claims are undisputed, and the money should be returned to us within 20 working days.
When there's a dispute
Problems with recovery typically arise when the owner of the receiving account disputes the claim. In some cases, this is deliberate, while in others it's because they're unaware of a problem - say, if the account is unused for some reason.
If the bank can't reclaim the funds straight away, they should launch an investigation and report back to the person who made the payment within 20 days.
The bank must also let us know about the options available to us should it look like they can't recover the money.
In many cases, this won't be as bad as it sounds. Banks investigating payments made in error aren't supposed to be able to remove disputed funds from an account if it would put the recipient into unauthorised overdraft, for example.
Unfortunately, that remains the case if the reason the recipient would go into overdraft is because they knew the money wasn't theirs but spent it anyway.
In circumstances such as these, one of the options available to us is taking the recipient to court.
Making a complaint
The bank should help us try and fix any misdirected payment issues but, if we don't think they have done enough, we can always make a complaint about their process and the way they've handled the case.
This could be an option if we think the bank was at fault due to a duplication error or glitch on their end.
If we want to make a complaint, we should first do so according to the bank's own formal written complaints procedure, which should be available upon request. Should that not work, the next step is the Financial Ombudsman Service.
If you receive money in error
It may hearten those who make payment errors to know that unintended recipients of their money aren't entitled to go on a spending spree.
Keeping money that was transferred accidentally is unlawful and, in 2008, a woman from Blackburn was prosecuted after spending an £135,000 accidental deposit from the then Abbey National - but most incorrect payments aren't quite so noticeable.
As noted above, the bank is entitled to recover the money, so should our balance be healthier than we expect it's worth taking a good look at the "money in" column on our statements.
Anyone who receives money and can't account for its provenance should inform their bank; if there's the suspicion that it's been sent in error, set the money aside until any doubt has been cleared up.
How to prevent transfer disasters
The introduction of Confirmation of Payee (CoP) means that we'll experience misdirected payment issues much less frequently than we used to.
CoP was first confirmed in October 2018 as an anti-fraud measure and requires bank transfers to include the correct name of the person or business receiving the payment.
Implementation was delayed, but the system was implemented by major banks and is being extended in 2022 to other UK banks to ensure more payments are covered.
If the correct name is not used, the customer can still choose to override the system and transfer the money to the account anyway, but it's an extra layer of security that makes us stop and think about whether the details we're using are correct.
The Payment Services Regulator (PSR) included facts and figures on how CoP was working when they asked for views on expanding the system in May 2021.
They said that CoP helped to prevent:
- Mis-keyed digits in the account number
- Mis-keyed digits in the sort code
- Completely incorrect account number and/or sort code
- Wrong account details provided by payee
Their data show a decline in the number of misdirected payments since the introduction of CoP, and the PSR is hopeful the introduction of CoP across more payments will reduce misdirection and fraud even further.
Thanks to CoP, the loophole that allowed money to be transferred without any reference to a recipient's name has largely been closed.
This is good news and can stop genuine mistakes, but we should also check the details of what we're trying to send and whether the amount is correct.
While CoP can help us check we're sending money to the right person, it's still our responsibility to ensure we haven't put a couple of extra zeros on the end of it.
Institutions in countries that use the International Bank Account Number (IBAN) system - which include most European nations - can carry out transfers with just the numerical information.
Because of the way IBAN works, our money is far less likely to be swallowed by the wrong account and far more likely to bounce back to us - letting us know something has gone wrong somewhere.
However, some UK banks will only permit international transfers to be carried out when we provide the full name and address of the recipient, even if they're in a country that uses IBAN.
Furthermore, anti-money laundering laws in the US and some other countries mean that we need to be able to provide as much detail as possible about the recipient, and get it all right, before the payment can go ahead.
Summary: Improved systems
It's harder to make an accidental transfer to someone now than it used to be a few years ago thanks to the introduction of Confirmation of Payee.
Now we need to check that the name on the account matches the name we think we're sending money to, reducing the possibility of fraud as well as giving us chance to think again before sending money to an account where things don't quite match up.
This hasn't eliminated misdirected payments altogether, though, and we still need to be careful when we're sending money to someone else.
Remember the following points:
- Getting in touch with the bank as soon as we realise the error can make it easier to get the money back
- Money accidentally transferred to someone is legally ours and they should not spend it
- Banks should be helpful, but we can make official complaints if we feel their procedures haven't worked effectively
Perhaps the most important point to remember is that if we're told by our bank during the transfer process that the name or details don't match (a CoP check), we shouldn't go ahead with the payment unless we are 100% certain we're right and the computer is wrong.