What would you do if your bank mistakenly paid about £4m into your account? A New Zealand couple allegedly took the money and ran, and are now the subject of an international manhunt.
Leo Gao and Cara Young, who operated a BP petrol station in Rotorua, on the North Island, applied to one of the major banks, Westpac, for a $NZ10,000 (£3,940) overdraft. Westpac did more than grant their request: it credited their account with 1,000 times that amount. Mr Gao and Ms Young have now vanished. Police believe they may be in China, having withdrawn up to $6m before leaving New Zealand.
Westpac declined to say much about the case yesterday but confirmed it was "pursuing vigorous criminal and civil action to recover" the money. A spokesman blamed human error, rather than a computer glitch, for the couple's inadvertent windfall, and said, rather ominously, that the bank was "reviewing its procedures". Observers expect heads to roll.
According to neighbours, the petrol station suddenly closed two weeks ago, with stock still on the shelves and a notice on the door stating it was in receivership. Deliveries piled up outside, and people began helping themselves to newspapers and other supplies. The fuel tanks and their contents were removed by BP this week, and the shop is now empty.
The hunt for the accidental millionaires is being led by Interpol, but New Zealand police have been looking for them in China, according to the Rotorua Review newspaper. There are also reports that they may have fled to Korea.
Westpac refused to confirm the size of the sum "mistakenly advanced" to Mr Gao and Ms Young, and police, too, were tight-lipped, saying only that they had received a complaint from the bank and were investigating the whereabouts of a substantial amount of money, which they believed was overseas.
Although it was the bank's fault that the couple became multi-millionaires overnight, they would be committing a crime if they spent money they knew was not theirs, banking experts say. The New Zealand Banking Ombudsman, Liz Brown, told Rotorua's Daily Post that such mistakes did happen occasionally, but they usually involved thousands rather than millions of dollars.
Detective Senior Sergeant David Harvey, who is in charge of the case, said Westpac believed that either theft or fraud had been committed. He confirmed some of the money had been withdrawn from the account, but declined to say how much. "We are currently conducting an investigation into the individuals that may have been involved in the withdrawal of that money," he said.
Claire Matthews, a banking lecturer at New Zealand's Massey University, said the couple were unlikely to get away with their alleged crime. "They've taken funds that they're not entitled to, that are not theirs," she said. "They've effectively, I guess, become thieves." She said it would be difficult for them to argue that they had believed the huge sum was legitimately theirs.
A Westpac spokesman, Craig Dowling, said the bank had recovered some of the money. New Zealand media reported that $4m had been recouped.
Raman Ramschod, the owner of a business in the same block as the petrol station, said that he had had regular dealings with Mr Gao and Ms Young. "I had no problems with them," he said. "They seemed OK to me. He seemed a pleasant person and she was quite nice."
Little is known about the couple's backgrounds, although Ms Young is Australian, according to some reports. Their business had reportedly been struggling, and they applied for the overdraft in an effort to stay afloat. Receivers are examining their records, but they are believed to owe money to creditors.
Rotorua is a popular tourist town, famous for its thermal springs, geysers and hot-mud pools.