The technology of banking may need an overhaul. A software failure paralyzed one of the nations largest automated teller machine systems last week, in what may be a symptom of an industrywide problem.
The computer crash that struck New York-based Citibank over two days sounded like the kind of glitch that was anticipated with the arrival of year 2000 (Y2K). More than 2,000 ATMs were knocked out, along with the debit card and online systems, and cardholders paying for services or needing cash were out of luck.
As the company rushed to solve the problem, it also added agents to field thousands of complaints from customers and businesses.
While the major outage hit Tuesday evening, problems continued. Citibank spokesman Mark Rodgers said at least some terminals were operating at every Citibank branch by late afternoon Wednesday.
Rodgers attributed the problem to an "internal software issue." While pointing up how automation-dependent the nations economy has grown, the failure also revealed an aging patchwork of systems cobbled together through years of mergers and developing technology.
As programmers discovered while preparing for Y2K, the banking system lacks a clear genealogy for its mainframe computers. Most of the programmers who worked on legacy systems have left their companies with little documentation.
Citibank is not alone. Rival J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. reported that some automated transactions were canceled last week because of unrelated system delays.
Over the past decade, ATM transactions have more than doubled to $13.2 billion on 273,000 machines. Citibank customers unable to use their ATM cards on Citibanks 2,000 machines were able to withdraw money from the ATMs of other banks. Citibank promised to reimburse customers for any transaction fees incurred as a result of the glitch.
American Bankers Association spokesman John Hall said the recent problems should not be construed as a threat to the nations commerce. "I think its remarkable, the efficiency of the ATM network, and the fact that this is news is a testament to the ATM system," Hall said.