Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bank of America’s “Higher Standards”

Before you walk in to your “friendly neighborhood” BofA branch to deposit a check, you better beware that at least in California, if they decide to have you falsely arrested and jailed, you can’t sue them for what they did.

A San Fransisco man found that out the hard way when he went into a BofA with a check made out to him – a check that turned out to be written by an unauthorized party on a company account. Matthew Shinnick thought he had sold his bicycles on Craigslist and didn’t want to deposit the check in his own account just in case it might bounce and hit his account with yet another creative bank fee. So he asked the teller to verify that it would clear and after a few moments, she told him it would.

Shinnick’s primary mistake was deciding to cash it instead of just depositing it. Maybe he thought having the cash in hand was better than risking a stop-payment some days in the future (and yet another bank fee). Maybe he thought that because the bank said the check wouldn’t bounce that it was good.

Either way, what he didn’t know was what the bank knew. Yes, there was money in the account to cover the check, but the check itself was bogus. The account the check was drawn on was actually flagged for potential fraudulent use. He endorsed it and the teller took it to her manager.

Four police officers soon had him in handcuffs and later led him away to jail where he spent twelve hours as a guest of the City of San Francisco crowded into a tiny holding cell with way too many other men.

And of course the charges were eventually dropped and a Judge has taken the steps to expunge all records of the case, but Shinnick and anyone else who raises the eyebrows of BofA branch employees and gets arrested for it can’t sue for false arrest. Turns out the California Supreme Court decided that criminal reports are privileged communication. Basically, institutions aren’t liable for reporting suspected crimes. (Hagberg v. California Federal Bank.)

With all the check-scamming going on, especially the typical Nigerian 419-style tricks, any time you get a check from someone you don’t know very well, don’t take it into a California bank, especially a BofA.

And even if you do just endorse it and deposit it, don’t assume that just because the money shows up as being in your account that they can’t come back and take it if it turns out to be bogus some days down the road. You might find yourself in the hole. That's still a better hole than the one the Police will put you in, though!

The Honorable Judge Roy Bean

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