“We quietly went to the bank … where we were told they’ll see if it’s real,” Barnreiter told ORF. “Three days later, we had the money in our bank account.”
He and his wife received $1,200 each, although neither is a U.S. resident or holds U.S. citizenship — key eligibility requirements. Barnreiter briefly worked in the United States in the 1960s and still receives a small pension from that period of employment, he said.
It is unclear how many U.S. checks were cashed in Austria by ineligible recipients. Similar instances have been reported in other countries.
NPR reported last month that thousands of foreigners who used to temporarily work in the United States had accidentally received stimulus checks. Speaking to NPR, government officials said at the time that improperly filed tax returns may be to blame for the accidental payments. Cashing the checks despite not being eligible, they added, could result in a change in visa status or difficulties in reentering the United States.
The payouts probably still account for a very small fraction of the first $2 trillion U.S. stimulus package.
The checks were the centerpiece of that relief package this year, amid the initial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Before their distribution by the Internal Revenue Service, the Treasury Department ordered President Trump’s name to be printed on them.
Many recipient abroad found this flourish especially confusing.
Several Austrian banks confirmed Wednesday that they had received queries from confused customers in recent weeks. Gerald Meissl, a senior official with Upper Austria’s Sparkasse bank, said several Austrians who had recently returned from the United States after working there as au pairs had received the checks, as well.
“People initially thought it’s a treacherous form of fraud — but the checks were real,” said a spokeswoman for Austria’s Oberbank.
Representatives of three local branches of banks operating in Austria said they had cashed about 200 U.S. stimulus checks by Wednesday.
None of the banks was able to say how many checks were cashed by Austrians likely to not be eligible for the U.S. government payments, vs. checks cashed by U.S. citizens living abroad and fulfilling the criteria.
The IRS would not respond on the record to a request for comment.
Speaking to ORF, pensioner Barnreiter said he is planning to spend the money in the United States once travel restrictions are eased.
But he acknowledged initial doubts about whether he made the right decision in cashing the check, as the United States continues to be hard-hit by the coronavirus. “Initially, I felt bad, thinking, ‘Those poor Americans, maybe they need the money more urgently than we do here in Europe.’ ”
But in the grand scheme of things, he said, “it’s peanuts.”