Millions left stranded in computer glitch
YUSUFF ALI Thursday, June 28 2012
SOMETIMES I wonder whether we are really ready to embrace computers in the way that we have been doing. I wonder because every so often we hear of problems being caused by computer breakdowns, bringing great disruption to the lives of those concerned.
Some of us still remember the worry we were put through just before the start of the new millennium, being told that computers were not programmed for this and all hell would break loose as the 20th century came to a close and the 21st century began. We even worried about airplanes falling out of the sky as their computers gave up the ghost at midnight.
In the event, the changeover came with no great computer-led disaster. This, I suspect, gave a boost to the confidence in what they were doing of those working in this field, allowing them to develop ever more complex applications for the computer.
Today, it seems that there is hardly any aspect of our lives untouched by computers. In fact, I have been told by those in the know that this is only the beginning and, to misquote one US president, we haven’t seen anything yet.
But in the midst of all this confidence, bank customers have been hit unexpectedly by a computer meltdown that affected Nat West, Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank. Millions of customers were unable to get cash from their accounts. People relying on money being paid into their accounts, including their wages, were unable to access their money.
Furious customers have had debit cards refused at tills, hotel checkout desks, airports, gas stations, supermarkets and elsewhere. And millions of standing orders, direct debits and mortgages have gone unpaid. Some were left homeless after the computer problems meant that house purchases fell through. Business firms were also hard hit.
The RBS Group, which owns the three banks, said technical issues holding up payments had been put right but it would take days for the situation to revert to normal. In an unprecedented move, 1,200 main branches of the three banks opened on Saturday and Sunday to deal with affected customers.
Stephen Hester, Group chief executive, apologised personally to customers on Saturday night. Mr Hester, who waived a £1million bonus this year, said, “I want to reassure customers that no one will be left permanently out of pocket as a result of this.”
Around 500 customers called the Financial Ombudsman Service on Saturday, asking for help at the height of the problem. Others vented their fury on Twitter but some were sympathetic. One tweeted, “I just feel sorry for the staff in the call centres. I spoke to a lady this morning and she was clearly close to tears.
“It’s difficult to remember that it’s not their fault. I did try not to shout at her but it was very hard, particularly after 35 minutes on hold, with the silly announcement saying ‘check the website’ every few seconds. How a situation like this can arise is unbelievable.”
The situation is understood to have arisen when staff tried to install a software update on the banks’ payment processing system but ended up corrupting it. The glitch, if you could call such a major problem a glitch, has also affected customers of other banks who were waiting for transactions from RBS Group accounts.
Financial watchdogs have urged the Group to offer compensation in a goodwill gesture to its customers. One watchdog executive, Richard Lloyd, said, “These are the basics that banks should be getting right. The question has to be whether the banks are investing in the most modern systems and doing everything they can.”
The Group had expected services to be “largely back to normal” by Monday but it extended opening hours at the 1,200 main branches for the rest of the week to help clear any backlog. Ulster Bank has said its customers’ problems may not be fixed till tomorrow while some customers at the other two banks are saying that their problems are continuing.
As I said at the beginning, sometimes I wonder whether we are really ready to embrace computers in the way that we have been doing.