IT Hiccups of the Week: Hundreds of Thousands Hit By U.S. Tax Filing Glitches

We had another interesting mixture of IT-related glitches, snarls, and snafus to choose from last week. We start off with U.S. taxpayers who will be waiting for their tax refund checks a bit longer than expected because of problems with some companies’ tax software products.

H&R Block and Other Tax Software Product Problems Delay Tax Refunds for Over 600 000

According to several news reports, H&R Block, one of the world's largest tax services providers, which files about 1 in 7 U.S. tax returns, announced on its blog that there was “a disconnect in the transmission of form 8863 from our delivery system to the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] E-file system”. That disconnect caused a delay in its customers getting their tax refunds. Federal Form 8863 (American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits) is used to claim two higher education credits. Over 600 000 H&R Block customers who had their forms filed between 14 February 22 February  are said to be affected, a story at the Washington Post reports.

Part of the problem lay with the IRS – or more specifically actions by the U.S. Congress – which delayed this year’s filing period and required changes to Form 8863. Both actions apparently caught H&R Block and “a limited number of software company” product developers off-guard, the IRS said. The tax software problems have reportedly been fixed, but refunds might be delayed by up to 8 weeks in some cases.

In another problem, about 10 days ago, Minnesota tax officials said that anyone using Intuit’s TurboTax software to file their state tax returns could be filing erroneous tax returns. At first, Intuit downplayed the errors claiming that they affected only non-obligatory tax issues such as donating $5 to a political party, but state officials countered last Monday by saying that there were about a dozen problems with the TurboTax software, most affecting tax computations, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported.

Within a few days of the state's announcement, Intuit claimed that its tax software was fixed and said that only 10 000 filers were affected. However, state tax officials told MPR that as of Friday, “it still isn't sure flaws in Intuit's TurboTax tax preparation software have been fixed.” The state is still telling residents not to use TurboTax until it has fully tested out the software. It also said that some14 000 tax returns using the software have been found to contain software-related errors.

Intuit says that it “will issue refunds to affected Minnesota state TurboTax customers for the full amount of their tax preparation fees.” Somehow, I don't think that will appease many filers who will now need to file amended returns.

Billing Problem Affect 145 000 Customers of EnergyAustralia

The Australian reported last week that problems with the introduction of EnergyAustralia's new IBM developed billing system has meant that some 145 000 customers have not been billed for their electricity or gas usage on time, including 21 000 that have not been billed at all. The Australian says errors in the new billing system are apparently higher than anyone expected.

The Australian quotes a source as saying, “The backlog is caused by IBM middleware (software) unable to handle sales files sent by third parties such as distributors. Due to inadequate validity checking, errors are created and the IBM team in India is woefully undermanned to handle the workload. These errors have to be manually fixed, which has resulted in a growth in the backlog.”

EnergyAustralia acknowledges the system is undergoing “teething problems” and that IBM has doubled its support staff to handle the problems. The energy company also insists, however, that it’s only a “small number of customers who haven’t had the best experience.”

EnergyAustralia has about 1.25 million residential and business customers.

Montreal Métro System Shuts Down

Last Wednesday, as feared, all four lines of Montreal’s Métro System shut down completely over the lunch hour because of known software problem in a critical main computer system server. According to a story in the Montreal Gazette, a series of Métro System shut-downs early last summer revealed that a there was an “unstable server” which is “part of the main computer system used to operate the métro.” The server is used to send and receive information from “most of the systems in the métro,” Montreal’s transit agency officials stated.

A software patch was installed last July, but métro engineers determined in October that a “more complex patch” was required.  The patch has been under-development since then and is scheduled to be installed late this month or early in April.

However, on Wednesday morning,  engineers noticed that the server’s software was becoming unstable again and was passing “bad data” to the main computer system. The engineers planned a controlled shutdown of the métro a little after noon for about 10 minutes in order to go to the back-up system. Unfortunately, the métro’s main computer system shut itself down before the engineers did as the “server gave bad data to the system and saturated the memory” of the computer. This uncontrolled shutdown complicated things, transit agency officials said.

It took over an hour to restore finally service.

Montreal’s transit agency officials apologized once again to métro riders, who have suffered outages in January and February as well. Agency officials promise the system will be better once the new software patch is put into place.

Yet Another Tesco Pricing Glitch

Given their regularity, it almost seems that U.K. retailer Tesco is deliberately creating pricing glitches to attract customers to its stores. As reported by the Telegraph, the latest pricing glitch “allowed shoppers to buy one product and get three free on 500g packs of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (ICBNB) and multipacks of Danone Onykos yogurts.” According to the Telegraph, the pricing error worked both in the store and on-line. One shopper claimed to have paid just £9 for yogurt worth £133.

A Tesco spokesperson said that it was supposed to “be a simple buy one get one free offer” but an “IT error” was responsible for the unintended “unbeatable value.”

Last month, another Tesco pricing error showed up on in-store ads in relation to Thorton’s Premium Collection Chocolates. Here, however, the error turned a 50 percent off a £7 box deal instead into a final price of £7.35 a box.

You win some, you lose some.

Woman Arrested After Spending Money Due to Pay Error

There was a story from radio station WTAQ Wisconsin about a woman in Wisconsin being arrested for spending some $10 000 paid to her by mistake by her former employer.

According to WTAQ, the woman worked for the Stein Garden Center in the City of Oconomowoc and normally earned $8.25 an hour for her labors. However, a computer error changed it to $88.25 an hour.  Apparently, on receiving a windfall of $10 000, she decided to quit her job rather than tell her employer of the error.

About a month after she quit, her employer found the error and wanted the money back. The woman allegedly told the company she didn’t know anything about an error in her pay. When a police detective was called in to investigate, she then told him that she “thought the money had come from her aunt and she had already spent it on a new roof for her home.”

She later acknowledged receiving the money in error, but that “she had no intention of repaying it” since “it was the company’s mistake – not hers.”

The woman was charged, I assume with felony theft, and faces six years in prison if convicted, WTAQ reported.

Connectivity Problems Shut Down Newly Opened NHS Trust Surgery

In a bit of an oddball story, the UK press last week reported on a brand new £300 000 National Helath Service (NHS) Trust doctors' surgery in Westbury-on-Severn, Gloucestershire that was shut down four hours after it opened 14 January because of “serious computer connectivity problems.” The  problem remains unsolved as of today.  According to the BBC, an NHS Gloucestershire spokesperson said, “Both the practice and NHS Gloucestershire have been making every effort to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, and the PCT's IT team has been working with to establish the cause of the problems. We are now very close to resolving the connectivity issues and the [Primary Care Trust] will be meeting with the surgery next week to finalise the options.”

What wasn’t explained in any of the press stories is how such a “connectivity problem” was somehow overlooked before the surgery was opened.

Glitches for Sale

Art based on digital glitches has been around for a while. Now, you can buy a storage unit that looks like it is suffering from a really big glitch. Created by designer Ferruccio Laviani and sold by Italian furniture supplier Fratelli Boff, the “good vibrations” storage unit is said to reflect “a balance between the past and the future, blending the harmony and magniloquence of the classical with the charm and allure of the contemporary” as well as to exemplify “the harmonious juxtaposition of the languages and cultures it is based upon.”

“Echoes of faraway places and Oriental elements are glimpsed in the ‘disorienting’ design of this storage unit, which seems to have been ‘deformed’ by a strong jolt or by swaying movements. Although it appears to depart from the aesthetics of the past, in fact it draws upon ancient knowledge in the use of carving and fine wood workmanship. The appeal of this extraordinary piece of furniture lies in its ability to overturn and question classical stylistic principles such as purity, cleanness and symmetry, while evoking a comforting feeling of deja-vù and a sort of primitiveness, matched by unquestionable craftsmanship.”

Okay, then… to each their own (although I must admit that I harbored some thoughts about this just being an elaborate publicity stunt).

If glitch furniture doesn’t appeal, you can always buy some limited edition US $350 Glitch Textile blankets. The blankets’ patterns, the company says, “are generated using images taken with short circuited cameras and other unorthodox digital techniques.”

These I find much more appealing.

Photo: Scott Eelis/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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