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Under what circumstances can a UK high street bank reverse, refund or cancel a bank transfer and do they need to contact the account holder beforehand?

I had been under the impression that if I log onto my online bank account and see that I’ve been paid some money, then that money is mine.

However, I’ve recently become aware of a scam whereby an honest vendor will offer something for sale (maybe a camera, a laptop or similar) a scammer will offer to buy it, and will transfer money over, the vendor will see the money in his account, dispatch the item believing he’s been paid, and then the scammer will somehow ‘reverse’ or ‘cancel’ the transaction.

How does this work? Does the scammer simply call his bank and says he’s made a mistake? Or does he call the bank and say he never made the transaction and it must be fraud?

If I'm the seller, how would I protect myself from this? Are there some forms of electronic transfer that are more secure than others? Does it make any difference how long the money is in my account before I post the goods? Maybe if I wait 4 days and the money is still there it must be legitimate?

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Bank transfers are reversed in specific cases of fraud.

For example, if I hack into your bank account and send money to a third person, when it is discovered it will be reversed. There is no artificial deadline for that to happen.

On the other hand, if I trick you and convince you to send money to that third person, that cannot be reversed. The difference is that it was you who told the bank where to send the money, and you can’t just change your mind later.

If you are a seller, the best way to protect yourself is to ensure to the best of your ability that your customer is who they say they are. That is why in-person transactions often require photo ID, and why online transactions often will only ship to the address that is associated with the bank card.

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  • Who (or what laws) determines when it can be reversed and when it cannot? – RockPaperLz- Mask it or Casket Feb 24 at 16:19
  • I think it is important to add that if you hack into someone's account and send them funds, that reversal can only occur if the funds are still in the scammer's target account!. This is important because most commonly, scammers who transmit funds electronically will immediately disperse those funds far and wide across the universe, meaning that the time you have to detect and reverse fraud can actually be quite minimal. Hopefully no one considering sending funds would take undue comfort by an extended timeline that won't always be available... – Grade 'Eh' Bacon Feb 24 at 19:01
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    @Grade'Eh'Bacon If the bank sends out money from my account without my approval, the bank needs to put that money back. If the amount is large enough or enough time has passed to make it difficult to recover, they will want to make sure that it didn’t happen due to my negligence, but ultimately consumers have zero fraud liability. If we didn’t, banks would not be a safe place to keep money. – Ben Miller - Remember Monica Feb 24 at 19:41
  • @BenMiller-RememberMonica It's not 100% safe. If a robber entered the bank and left with "your" money, yes, the bank must pay it to you (unless it lost so much money that they bankrupt, and a portion of that will be covered by the appropriate entity on your country). Similarly, if someone cracked into your bank account for reasons unrelated to you (e.g. they got the password from an employee), then they would be liable for that. If you provided your credentials to a phishing page, then it was (partly) your fault, and they could choose not to reimburse you. – Ángel Feb 25 at 0:57
  • Note that many banks will still cover it even in that case. It's preferable for them to cover the cost but keep the customer happy and using online banking. Plus that might be (in full or partly) recovered, and it may be paid by their insurance, anyway, However, they may reject your claim as well, and some banks will do exactly that! – Ángel Feb 25 at 0:58
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You can't reverse or cancel a direct bank transfer (sometimes known as BACS or Faster Payments).

These scams typically work in one of two ways:

  • The scammer uses a reversible payment method, for example giving you a cheque which may appear as cleared in your bank account but may subsequently be detected to be fraudulent many months later and then the money removed again
  • The scammer makes you a direct transfer from someone else's bank account (either an account he has directly hacked, or more likely he convinces another of his victims to make a payment to his "beloved Grandmother who is stuck on an oil rig" or whatever). You get the money and think it's legit and send the item he is buying from you. A few days later the victim realises their money has gone and contacts their bank. At that point the fraud department of the bank may work with the fraud department of your bank to return the money that you got unlawfully from the victim. And if you're doubly unlucky then the police don't believe you that there was a third party involved and you are up on charges of money laundering and/or fraud yourself.
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    While I don't disagree with your first sentence, from the perspective of the seller (the asker of this question), "the fraud department of the bank may work with the fraud department of your bank to return the money that you got" looks a lot like the transfer being cancelled and reversed, doesn't it? – AakashM Feb 23 at 12:33
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    Yes, agreed, it does, but it's not just "the scammer rings up the bank and says they've changed their mind", as the OP suggested. – Vicky Feb 23 at 13:03
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    You can reverse BACS - I had my wages taken back out of my account about 5 hours after they were paid in by a major UK supermarket chain, which put me overdrawn as I had already spent some of it. The bank (HSBC) confirmed that the sender has a period (I want to say 72 hours) to reverse the payment and thats what happened to me. As it turned out, they reversed the payment because they underpaid me (it was my final paycheck with them) and they had to cover all my bank charges as a result. – Moo Feb 24 at 9:18
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Scammers will also often send you a ACH transfer or send you a check to deposit. In these cases many banks will "pre-credit" your account with the funds on the expectation that the money will show up. In these cases it looks to you like you got the funds, your balance reflects the deposit. You then send the item. In a few days the ACH rejects from the source bank or the check NSFs (fails due to insufficient funds in the source account) but you have already sent the purchased item.

This is similar to the scam whereas you are requested to deposit $10K into your account that someone wires to you and you are asked to send another party $2K. In the short term it looks like you got the $10K so you send your $2K but it was never actually there. When your bank tries to collect the money, it fails so the credited amount is removed. Leaving you out $2K.

So, normally any transfer YOU do can't be undone but transfer made to you can fail or can be undone if it can be proven that they were not authorized (a hack or such).

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A retailer could be the target of a "chargeback", this can occur legitimately to protect the consumers rights but can also occur in a more dubious manner where a consumer is attempting to bypass a retailers return policies.

How does chargeback work?

Chargeback is a transaction reversal made to dispute a card transaction and secure a refund for the purchase.

Chargeback works by the bank withdrawing funds that were previously deposited into the recipient’s - usually a retailer - bank account and putting them back into your account.

The recipient may dispute a chargeback with the bank if it can prove the chargeback is invalid.

More details here: https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/how-do-i-use-chargeback

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  • Why was this voted down? – Hashim Aziz Feb 23 at 23:44
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    I'm not the downvoter, but I would presume they downvoted because the question was about bank transfers not card payments. – Peter Green Feb 24 at 1:10
  • Good point, but I suppose the advice could be taken as general official guidance in relation to consumer/vendor payment practices which may be informative. – Alex KeySmith Feb 24 at 14:53
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    Even though the title says "bank transfer" the body of the question clearly means any sort of payment confirmation. – OrangeDog Feb 24 at 22:50
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    @OrangeDog Personal bank accounts don't typically receive money by debit card transactions. – GS - Apologise to Monica Feb 25 at 11:24
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That scam usually involves the the scammer using a stolen credit card number to buy the item. If you try to this using your actual credit card (assuming you manage to reverse the payment with the bank), the seller will report the fraud to the police, who will request your personal details from the bank. Depending on the amount of money at stake, the seller may actually decide to go after you for damages in this case, and if you didn't previously reported your credit card as stolen or lost, you may not be able to get away with it.

Seller protection against such fraud often consists in compliance with safety requirements of the trading/payment platform, and insurance.

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If the money that was put into your bank account was put there by fraud or as a result of a crime, there is no practical limit to how long it can be reversed. Maybe after six years or so it cannot be reversed anymore.

When someone hacks into my bank account, or steals my cheques, and uses that to put money into your account, that money is not yours, never was yours, and never will be yours. You can even be done for theft if you take it and spend it (and that has happened to people in the UK). It is a common scamming method that some criminal makes money appear in your bank account and asks you to transfer money to them. The bank will eventually take their money away from you, but what you paid will be gone.

As a rule: If someone puts money into your account and then asks you to send money back, it's a scam.

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  • I don't think it's that simple. If I steal something and sell it to you for £10 cash, then the victim of the theft remains the owner and can recover it from you, leaving you to try to get your £10 back from me. But if I steal a £10 note and buy something from you, I don't think the victim can just get their £10 note back from you. I'm not too sure what the legal difference is and how it would apply in the scenario in the question though. – GS - Apologise to Monica Feb 26 at 22:18
  • In these cases, the money wasn’t moved by fraud or as the result of a crime. – gnasher729 Feb 26 at 23:13
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Regarding your last question, you can ask to be paid in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. With cryptocurrencies, there is no way to cancel or withdraw a transaction.

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