Do I have to return money that a customer paid by mistake?

Q. Sometimes a customer makes an error and overpays. Do I have to let him know? What if he owes me money too because of merchandise he never paid for?

A. Monopoly fans who recognize the “Community Chest” card in the headline of this column know that some players don’t see anything wrong with profiting from someone’s error. And in certain cases Jewish tradition agrees that responsibility for accurate payment falls on the payer, especially when business is conducted in a “jungle” environment.

However, in the vast majority of cases the ethical policy is to return overpayments. In all our financial dealings we should strive to project integrity. A business person has a right to every penny he earns, but shouldn’t try to keep more than he earns. In the long run, he will probably not fool his business associates, and he will certainly not fool the Almighty Who provides for all His creatures and expects them to act in accordance with His will. For this reason, a prominent authority writes that businesspeople who cheat their customers risk financial ruin.

If the payer owes you money as well, there is nothing wrong with holding on to the money. In this case, the money is really yours! However, if you have a relationship of trust with the payer, the most ethical course of action is to inform him that he has overpaid and that you are holding on to the money as payment for a particular debt.

But if you are dealing with a powerful customer who would take advantage of your admission, you don’t have to come forward in this way to your own detriment. (If you admitted to the power company that they undercharged you for electricity but explained that you’re keeping the money because their utility truck dented your car, they probably wouldn’t take you to court – they would just cut off your electricity.)

Even if you are not absolutely sure that the money is owed you, you may keep it. Why should you bear the burden of proof? However, in this case it is especially important to inform the other side of your action, so that they have the chance to present their point of view.

Sometimes you can give yourself the benefit of the doubt. There may a good reason to think that the customer is really offering you a higher price than you expected. Even in this case, it is best to make sure it’s not a clerical error. Just remind the customer that you are supplying 800 widgets at a price of eighty dollars per widget. You don’t have to invite trouble by asking the customer if he really agrees to this price; but you should make sure that he at least is aware of what he is paying.

When Joseph’s brothers returned from Egypt and discovered that there money had been inexplicably returned, they didn’t rejoice at their good fortune. Instead, knowing that the money was not rightfully theirs, “they trembled in fear, each saying to his brother, what is this that G_d has done to us”? They didn’t rest until they brought the money back and were reassured by the steward that it was G_d who put the money in their sacks. (Genesis 42:28, 43:23.)

SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 348:1, commentaries including Be’er HaGolah.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS: I see from the questions I received that the message didn’t get across. Here’s the bottom line:

1. If you’re sure the payment is not due you and you’re not owed the money for some other reason, just return the money promptly.

2. If you’re not sure it’s a mistake, or if you’re keeping the money for an outstanding debt, notify the payer that you’re keeping the money until the doubt is resolved or the debt is repayed.

Only if you’re sure that there’s an oustanding debt and notifying the payer will harm your ability to collect it should you keep the money without letting the payer know of the error.