Do You Owe $23 Quadrillion?

An unidentified computer glitch has led Visa to overcharge several of its cardholders for routine purchases at drug stores, gas stations, and restaurants, to the tune of $23,148,855,308,184,500.00 each. These charges, as far as we can tell, exceed the sum total of wealth accumulated in human history. Affected cardholders were assessed a $15 overdraft fee. Count this as a cautionary tale for advocates of all-digital currency. The charges have reportedly been reversed, but we’d love to hear from anyone who, through this snafu, accumulated a black hole of debt. [%comments]


Actually, this is the banks sneaky way of correcting their balance sheets after this subprime mess.


The geeks as slashdot have figured out what happened. Convert the large number to hexadecimal and you get a bunch of 20s and then the cost. There was an improper conversion. The Hex 20 character is a space.

glad it didn't happen to me

Good to see that one of those articles already addressed my first reaction: that the amount somehow came from his credit card number (it did not). My second reaction to the first report I saw this morning: wow, cigarettes still sell for $4 in some parts of the country.

In any case, I'm happy to say this has not happened to me.


I saw an example of this on Boingboing:

It's also a good illustration of the difference between how a human handles these things and a computer does. As soon as a human sees that number, they'll know something's up. If a computer hasn't been provided with a specific threshold to raise a flag, (the card's credit limit seems like a logical choice) it processes it the same as anything else.


Elana, Guffa at StackOverflow beat Slashdot.


It's a technical glitch. The interesting part of this is not that it happened, but rather, how those involved dealt with it.

People calling their banks to ask about this, got a lot of runaround from folks at those banks who either did not realize there was anything wrong with massive transactions, or who realized they were erroneous but otherwise did not address all the attendant issues (e.g. NSF fees, etc.).

Also, although the problem has been figured out, it's not because anyone working for a bank or Visa actually disclosed what it had been. It was, instead, "reverse engineered" by geeks who uncovered the cause on their own. Official response has been evasive at best, e.g. in this story:

Bank of America tells WMUR-TV only the card issuer, Visa, could answer questions. Visa, in turn, referred questions to the bank.

As I said, the assorted dodging, swerving, evasiveness, and foot-dragging are interesting. What makes people so unwilling to deal with what is, in the end, a simple technical glitch?

Very revealing about human nature.



this happened at the bank I work a few months ago, although not nearly as drastic. Debit cards used as credits would go in not for a $5 cup of coffee but as thousands of dollars. It was a technical glitch from our debit card vendor.

I opened the call center that day, and it was a roller coaster, within five minutes we were swamped. Within an hour, we had a tentative plan (one of many that day) and ways for customer to get needed funds in urgent situations. Within the day, everything was reversed and I never saw a fee charged.

Management even bought us pizza.

Joe Smith

So when the banks computer over charges a customer by that amount - whose balance sheet did the charge show up on and if it did not immediately get reflected on someone's balance sheet, why not?


Anyone working in data knows that you have to have checks against absurd results - and certainly in a case like credit card transactions. It shocks me that they didn't have a large transaction check ... especially considering many credit agencies DO have such checks, not against programming errors but against fraudulent use [say, if you have a $10,000 card but spend $50 a month on it, and keep zero balance, but suddenly have $8000 charged to it from Russia, or even some state far from your billing zip] they will often flag the transaction and ask the retailer to call the credit issuer so that they can talk to you and verify your identity on the phone.

Pretty silly all around...


My guess as to why fraud flag didn't get raised is because the error happened after the check happened. This could also be why the vendor didn't get credited for the large dollar amount (if that in fact was the case).


Other than the obvious error of blank padding the amount instead of zero filling this exposes some other holes in the system. If the account was debited by the erroneous amount then one of two things should have occurred.
a) some account, say the retailer, should have been credited. In that case the temptation to take part of the money and run must have been large.
b) if another account was not credited then there should have been a huge out of balance condition that should have set off numerous alarms. Instead it appears from the news stories that the account holders had to report the problem. One article said he was on the phone two hours convincing the bank there was an error.

There are still things to be fixed other than the originating error.


Just think of all the reward points!


My first thought was a little different I think.

Two words - Reward Points!

And imagine if it was a double points reatiler! WICKED!!!


As a student, I once spent $1000 at my school's bookstore on textbooks (and my school was not in my home state). The transaction was rejected as suspicious, and Visa called my home phone number immediately. I'm surprised that never happened here!

Adrian P

We don't know WHERE the issue was. it's highly likely that they were handled as regular transactions and then the balance update held the error.

I have seen that happen before with Visa charges.


"What makes people so unwilling to deal with what is, in the end, a simple technical glitch?"

It's most likely a simple matter of comfort zones.

One sees this all the time in application programming -- the users (and programmers) of one particular set of programs, procedures, and policies become tightly engaged by the routine of their specific work responsibilities. Anything outside the expected range of inputs is often met with confusion, denial, defensiveness, disbelief, panic, etc.

Which only makes sense. Knowledge comes from experience. If you have no experience with a situation, the reactions will generally be from deductive analogy based on the most similar experiences one has... assuming one has the ability to stop and consider the facts rationality. And most people on the front lines are hired largely based on cost, not the amount of rational problem-solving skill they hold.



"facts rationality" -> "facts rationally" or "facts in terms of rationality"

Speaking of application programming, edit function anyone?


What do you mean a simple explanation? "Technical glitch" wouldn't satisfy anybody, and talking about character encoding and how data is stored and the concept of number bases, you'd lose 99.9% of the population and certainly 100% of the support people, who are the ones who have to explain it to the public.


i want the cash back reward.


And if the glitch had just added a dollar or two instead, would anyone have noticed?