What to Know
Class action lawsuits can lead to settlements that benefit consumers
Successful class actions can lead to refunds, credits, or coupons for thousands or millions of customers
Many class members never respond to lawsuit judgments or settlements, leaving cash or free merchandise on the table
Just as the Mega Millions lottery jackpot ballooned beyond $500 million last summer, Shawn Friel found an almost identical check in his mailbox.
"That's a lot of zeros," Friel said, looking at the check written out to him for $500,000,031. "It sounded funny when I got it. I thought you guys would be great to look into it."
At first, the NBC Bay Area Responds team wondered if it could be a scam: an overseas lottery win, an inheritance from an unknown relative, or a gift from a Nigerian prince.
But Friel said he actually did expect a check -- just not for quite as much money as this one.
Friel had worked for Postmates, the San Francisco-based delivery service.
"I did it for about a year," Friel said.
Lawyers acting on behalf of delivery drivers filed a class action lawsuit over driver pay. Postmates settled for $8.75 million. Friel's share was $31.
Somehow, the $500 million check arrived instead. Friel's bank refused to cash it -- not for $500 million, or even just the $31 Friel was owed.
"They thought it was funny," Friel said. "I said, 'We've got to process this check.' And they said, 'No, we can't.'"
It turns out Friel wasn't alone having trouble cashing a class action settlement check. Some students of Trump University sued the real estate seminar for fraud. Then-candidate Donald Trump said he wouldn't settle. But days after he won the election, Trump did agree to a $25 million settlement.
Patti M., an NBC Bay Area viewer in Pacifica, was among those students. She and her son were due $10,000. But her settlement check bounced. Patti requested a new one but got nowhere. NBC Bay Area tracked down the case administrator, and Patti then got a new check for $10,000 that successfully cleared.
Friel needed a little more help with his settlement check.
"How do I cash this?" Friel asked. "For $31, or whatever -- what do I do with this?"
In addition to the errant $500 million, we spotted a second problem. The check was dated "09/02/51." It wasn't clear whether that meant 1951 or 2051.
We started asking questions. Postmates did not respond to our inquiries, but we did find the company that printed the check. It blamed a "clerical error", and told us it actually sent out a second check like this to someone else.
Within a week, Friel got a new check -- for $31.
Friel and Patti M.'s cases got us thinking: Are we seeing class action notices more often? Anna Han, a law professor at Santa Clara University, says yes.
"Class actions are very, very prevalent right now," Han said. "They're useful in many ways."
Here's the problem: Many people just ignore the class action judgment or settlement notices -- leaving money on the table.
Consider the case of ProFlowers. Customers sued, saying they were misled into signing up for a "rewards" program for a monthly fee. Court documents show 1.4 million customers were entitled to a cash refund -- but only if they responded. Just 3,000 did -- fewer than 1 percent.
Opting in to a class action usually requires minimal work and often includes a helpful companion website to explain the terms of the settlement. It's also important to watch your mailbox and email inbox for class actions, as that might be the only way you know there's money coming your way.
Professor Han encourages consumers carefully read every class action notice they get. "Class actions are a way of getting some remedy versus none at all," Han said.