Some 130 Austrians have received coronavirus relief checks from the American government, according to local media, leaving many puzzled as few, if any, of the recipients are eligible for the payments.
At least 108 checks from the US Treasury Department – each worth $1,200 and bearing the signature of President Donald Trump – have already been cashed at two banks in Upper Austria, public broadcaster ORF reported, citing several people who received checks in the mail. Another local report noted that 20 others had brought checks to the regional Oberbank, totaling more than $150,000 between the three banks.
Manfred Barnreiter, a 73-year-old Austrian pensioner, said both he and his wife were sent $1,200 checks from the US government earlier this year, despite the fact that neither reside in the US or hold American citizenship.
“We quietly went to the bank… where we were told they’ll see if it’s real. Three days later, we had the money in our bank account,” said Barnreiter, who initially believed he was the victim of fraud. He admitted that he “felt bad” about taking the cash at first, but ultimately concluded it was “peanuts” compared to the vast sums spent on lobbying in the US.
While the elderly retiree currently has no tie to the United States, he said he worked in the country for a few years in the 1960s, providing a possible explanation for the mix-up.
His wife, however, has never set foot on US soil.
The payments have not been confined to pensioners, as several Austrians who recently returned from the US after stints as ‘au pair’ childcare workers have also received checks, according to Gerald Meissl, a top official at the Sparkasse bank in Upper Austria.
Paul Kaiser, head of portfolio management at the Raiffeisen bank branch in Linz, said the mysterious payouts were likely related to an “administrative error,” pointing to a previous mishap in which US authorities sent out more than 1 million checks to people who had died, totaling some $1.4 billion, according to Politico. For those in Austria receiving payments, Kaiser said Washington may seek to reclaim the money, but noted that was unlikely.
Other foreign workers have also apparently received US checks by mistake. Last month, NPR reported that “thousands” of people who entered the States on temporary work visas were sent relief payments, many of them successfully cashing the checks and spending the money in their home countries, including in Brazil, India, China, Canada, Nigeria and South Korea.
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