A Toronto senior who deposited a cheque with her bank and waited for it to clear found out the hard way that you can lose everything in a heartbeat when the bank changes its mind.
“Clear means, to me, that they’ve investigated where the cheque came from and where it’s going to,” said Leslie Milligan, a customer of TD Canada Trust.
In September, 2015, Milligan received a letter in the mail from a company claiming to be Publishers Clearing House, a direct market company that sells magazine subscriptions and other products. It’s also well known as a sweepstakes company with multi-million dollar payoffs.
The letter, which turned out to be fraudulent, told Milligan she had won $1.6 million USD. The package included a cheque for $16,482.68, and instructed Milligan to deposit the money and keep the funds, except for making a $10,000 remittance to an organization that would provide tax advice.
Milligan, who had purchased Publishers Clearing House products in the past, believed the letter. She went to her TD Canada Trust branch in Etobicoke and gave the cheque to tellers.
No one at the bank warned her of the possibility that the cheque was bogus, she said, even though many financial institutions train front-line staff to be vigilant against mail fraud and other scams that target their customers.
Five days after the cheque was given to the bank, it cleared. Milligan said with the belief she had received the money from Publishers Clearing House, she asked branch staff to wire the $10,000 as instructed in the letter. But Milligan said bank staff made a mistake and wired the full amount, more than $16,000.
A few days later, Milligan got the real bad news: TD Canada Trust had determined that the cheque, issued by an organization called Assiniboine, was fraudulent. TD Canada Trust immediately seized the savings in her account, and later went after more to recoup the money from her.
Milligan, who’s 82, and living on a fixed income and minimal pension, was flabbergasted. She spoke to a representative of the bank who she said was unsympathetic.
“I said, ‘I’m the victim here–why are you asking me to pay it?’ And the woman said, ‘Well somebody has to pay it and the bank isn’t going to,'” she said.
“$16,000 is a pittance to a big bank, it’s a whole lot of money to me.”
After draining and freezing her account, TD Canada Trust sent collectors to attempt to recover the balance of the money. A friend, who is also a lawyer, contacted the bank on her behalf as well as Toronto police. But despite efforts to escalate the issue to senior management, including the bank’s ombudsman, Milligan’s case was rejected.
In a letter dated Dec. 9, 2015, TD Canada Trust expressed concern about Milligan’s situation.
“I understand your frustration in learning that you were a victim of fraud,” wrote Hetal Gandhi, senior manager of customer care. “I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this experience has caused you.”
Gandhi went on to explain to Milligan that for her “protection, a hold was placed for five days” on the cheque, adding it is the “responsibility of customers to understand the transactions and people with whom they do business.” The letter confirms the bank’s decision to hold her financially liable for the bounced cheque that the bank had initially cleared.
Contacted by Global News for comment on the case, TD Canada Trust said it is “sympathetic” to Milligan’s situation and will review the case.
“Some of the information you provided is new to us and so we’ll need to look into it,” said Ana Aujla, manager of corporate communications.
Aujla said the process of clearing cheques in Canada refers to the process of moving funds from one financial institution to another and not verifying the authenticity of the cheque.
Milligan said was under the belief that once the funds had been released, the bank had done its due diligence. She said in her case, the bank’s staff incorrectly sent more money than instructed in the wire transfer, making the situation worse. She said her TD Canada Trust branch was only weeks from being closed, which it is today.
“I think the right thing to do is to give my money back,” said Milligan, who said she had a heart attack after the incident. She said the stress of losing her savings and being pursued for more money by the bank is stressful.
In denying her claim to have the funds restored to her account, a TD Canada Trust representative said the bank had conducted an investigation into what happened. But at no time did anyone contact Milligan for her side of the story.
Milligan said she contacted Global News in the hope that the bank would take another look at her case and return the funds.
“If they can do this to me, they can do this to anybody.”