Home >> News and Alerts >> What can you do if you sent money to a stranger by mistake?

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

Photo of author

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

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

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

Asilo hopes our advocacy team can find a way to get her money back. But that request might just prove to be an impossible task.

Yikes! I sent money to a stranger by accident!

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 to make the payment.

“I [opened the Zelle app] and 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 Zelle app asked her if she was sure about the payment. 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. She had sent the money to the wrong person.

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 cash to a complete stranger, who was happy to receive it.

Chase and Zelle: “If you accidentally send money to the wrong person, just ask for it back.”

Asilo had no reason to suspect that she had misdirected her donation to the wrong phone number. She received a confirmation from Zelle that the $500 payment 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 [into the Zelle app] incorrectly.”

Asilo was quickly on the phone with Chase and asked what to do about her misguided Zelle payment. 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 Chase 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? 

Asilo describing her phone call with Chase as she tried to reverse the Zelle payment

With a sinking feeling, Asilo realized that Chase was telling her that the mistake with the Zelle app was all hers to correct.

Chase did not intend to reverse the Zelle payment. When Zelle told her the same thing, Asilo picked up the phone once again.

Will the stranger give back the money sent by mistake?

Asilo opened her Zelle app and found the number of the person to whom she had sent the $500 by mistake. With trepidation, she dialed the phone number.

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

I told him what had 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 through the app, and that would fix this mistake. 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 with Chase and Zelle — he was unwilling to reverse the payment. I asked him for his full name and he refused to tell me. Then stopped responding to me. 

These are the texts exchanged between Asilo and the person who received her money by mistake via the Zelle app.
Chase will not reverse this cash app mistake — and neither will Zelle. Both companies advised Asilo to just ask the stranger to send her money back through the Zelle app.

Things were starting to look bleak, and Asilo says she called Chase again and asked again if her bank would reverse the Zelle mistake and return the payment. 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 the bank to simply reverse the Zelle payment. But that hope was quickly dashed when the Chase representative explained that reversal of a Zelle transaction isn’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 will not reverse this Zelle mistake

Several weeks later, Asilo received terrible news. Chase had determined that mistake or not; she had authorized the payment 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 our 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?

Why won’t this stranger 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?

I decided to find out who was behind that number.

After some online sleuthing, the stranger wasn’t faceless anymore.

The phone number turned out to belong to a small, family-run air conditioning and heating company in California.

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 had mistakenly typed into the Zelle app.

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

It didn’t.

Here’s why if you send money to a stranger by mistake with Zelle, you might not get it back.

The owner did not return my email or text either. So I turned my efforts to Zelle. Surely their team would want to make sure the money made it to the right person.

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 quickly in that person’s hands. 

Fact: There is currently no mechanism to reverse a Zelle payment — these transactions are just like wire transfers. The only way to cancel a Zelle payment is if the person you sent the money to by accident hasn’t enrolled in Zelle. If you send cash to the wrong person by mistake and they are enrolled in Zelle, they will receive the money immediately, and you will only get the money back if that stranger agrees to give it back.

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

But I thought the Zelle team might want to take a closer look at this particular case. 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 our Zelle executive contact

A goodwill refund from Chase and a warning to Zelle users: Be careful!

And soon, both the Zelle and Chase teams agreed to help Asilo.

The good news for Asilo is that because of her long-term good customer history with Chase, the bank has refunded 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

How to make sure that you don’t send money to the wrong person

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 for both the recipient and the sender. Here are some things to remember when using these services so you can avoid making 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. 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 reverse the transaction. Follow the rules set up by Zelle: Never pay a stranger for a product or service (or a pet you’ve never seen and never will) using the app. That’s a recipe for a scam. (See: How to easily lose $500 to a vacation rental scam? Pay with Zelle.)
  • 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: Here are six Zelle scams you need to know about.)
  • Double-check the recipient’s email or phone number (and then check it again!)
    Before you send money through Zelle, 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. Unfortunately, if you make a mistake with your Zelle payment, your money could end up in the hands of someone who won’t give it back — and you’ll have no way to make them return it.
  • Test send a small Zelle payment: To safely make certain that you have the correct address for your intended Zelle payment, first make a small test transfer. Since these transactions are instant, you can check with the person to whom you’re trying to send money immediately. If they haven’t received it, then you know something isn’t right. You probably just sent a tiny cash payment to the wrong person. Accidentally sending $1 to a stranger is a great way to catch a potentially devastating Zelle mistake before it happens!

Does this Zelle transaction mimic the Venmo Chargeback Scam?

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.

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 impossible 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

Be careful with your money! Zelle mistakes are not reversible

Several times during the phone call, our Zelle executive contact reiterated to me that “Zelle payments are irreversible.” For this reason, consumers using Zelle should be extremely cautious when sending money to friends and family. It’s critical to thoroughly read all prompts before hitting the final confirmation making certain the phone number is correct — every digit of it — otherwise, your cash will end up sailing into the wrong Zelle account.

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

Fact: Chase will not reverse a Zelle payment.

Chase confirmed that it does not reverse Zelle payments — even ones made by mistake.

A Chase spokesperson told me that Asilo’s Zelle $500 payment to the stranger was only temporarily credited to her account during the investigation.

Note: The only way the bank 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.

And Chase is not the only bank to confirm that Zelle transactions can’t be reversed.

Bank of America: Zelle mistakes can’t be reversed

I also spoke to our executive contact at Bank of America when one of its customers contacted me after mistakenly sending money to the wrong person through Zelle.

Theresa Pasquenelli entered the phone number of her intended recipient during a recent Zelle transaction a little too quickly. She realized moments too late that she had made a mistake and entered the wrong area code for the phone number in the Zelle app. Of course, that sent her money into the incorrect bank account. And that stranger decided it was a surprise windfall — and quickly spent the $600.

Long story short, made a mistake and I sent $600 to the wrong person through Zelle. I made a mistake with the phone number’s area code. We called Bank of America, who told us basically we are out of the money unless we contact the stranger who received it [and that person agrees to give it back].

They (Bank of America) 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 [Zelle payment to his account]. But then admitted that he spent the money right after he received it. He no longer had the $600 to give back. 

Theresa Pasquenelli

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

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 send it back. Neither Bank of America nor Zelle can/will force the stranger to return your cash.

Hi Michelle, For your background, we do remind customers [who use Zelle] 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 payment 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 to Michelle

Related: Find out what happened when a scammer pretending to be from Bank of America tried to convince me that I could use a code to reverse a Zelle payment.

How to get your money back if you made a Zelle mistake and sent it to the wrong person

  1. Cancel the transaction: Before you panic, the first thing to do if you make a mistake with your Zelle payment, is to try to cancel the transaction. You can only cancel the transaction if the target phone number has not yet been enrolled in Zelle.
  2. Contact the recipient of your error: All the banks and money transfer services give this same recommendation: If you make a mistake and send money to the wrong person through the Zelle app, it’s your responsibility to try to get it back. Privacy laws prevent the bank and transfer companies from revealing the identity of the receiver, but you’ll have some minimal contact information in your Zelle and bank account. Unfortunately, it will be entirely up to that person to decide how to proceed.
  3. Be polite: We’ve repeatedly seen consumers who have created this situation, turn on the receivers of the wayward funds. This could be dangerous for both parties. Remember, your Zelle mistake is not the recipient’s problem to fix. With that in mind, keep your correspondence with the stranger who received your money by mistake cordial. They likely want to resolve the problem too, and cooler heads will prevail.
  4. File a police report: If you’ve contacted your bank and the recipient and there is a large amount of money at stake, you may wish to contact your local police department. As we’ve seen in other cases, some recipients are unwilling to send the money back for fear of becoming the victim of a scam. Your local police department may be willing to help facilitate the peaceful return of your money.
  5. Contact an attorney: If you’ve sent a giant wad of cash to a stranger who won’t give it back, you may need to involve a legal team who can advise you further. Of course, legal guidance can be quite expensive and complicated. Remember that when you set out to make your next Zelle payment to someone. This type of mistake is easily avoidable if you use caution during all transactions.

What to do if a stranger sends you money with Zelle

Unfortunately, at this time, there does not seem to be an official way to safely return money that arrives in an account by mistake via Zelle. 

FYI: There is also currently no way to refuse a surprise Zelle payment by a stranger. 

This has caused many problems for honest people who receive money via Zelle from an anonymous person. It’s impossible to send the cash back without exposing themselves to a scam (See: If you receive money from a stranger, should you just keep it?).

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. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

*For more information about Zelle mistakes and scams, check out my interview with Chris Parker on the EasyPrey podcast.

Photo of author

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dan

She explained that the stranger she had sent the money to by mistake was unwilling to send it back.

The small business owner who refused to help isn’t the bad guy here. I would be unwilling to send it back too because:

there does not seem to be an official way to return money that arrives in an account by mistake via Zelle.

The banks refuse to help make sure the refund request isn’t a scam and they don’t help facilitate the return. However the banks will remind you that:

The ultimate responsibility not to send money to the wrong person lies with the user.

So if I receive a deposit in error and I make any mistake in sending the money back, or if it’s a scam that I fall for, then the financial responsibility is on me.

Sorry but that’s waaaay too much financial risk to ask someone to take on to fix a mistake that a complete stranger made. The bad guy in this story is the greedy banks and their payment app – who could easily reverse the payment but instead choose to wash their hands.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Hi Dan,

Yes, as you know, I’ve been covering the problems with Zelle for several years now and since this article was first published, I’ve received hundreds of complaints from Zelle users on both sides of the equation (mistaken recipient and sender)… and of course also from all the victims of the various Zelle scams. Unfortunately, many of the people who have connected this app to their bank accounts have no idea of its dangers… so I will continue to warn consumers about it. Michelle

Diablo

I received 1900$ trough zelle from someone
that i don’t know after that text messages from 3 different people that I need to return the money back, just I went to my bank and told them to reverse transaction to the right person that is it … it shouldn’t be that hard for banks and zelle to make mechanism for mistakes …

6
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x