Spigots Closed on Commonwealth Bank of Australia's "Free Cash" ATMs

Last August, a security upgrade to Commonwealth Bank of Australia's banking systems caused a day of what was called "banking chaos." Then in December, a CBA overnight file processing glitch caused a day of banking angst for 5% of its customers. Well, now Monday night's "routine database maintenance" apparently has caused a day of banking ATM frenzy yesterday.

According to various Australian news reports like this one from the Herald Sun, problems created by the routine maintenance prevented CBA customers across Australia to use online money transfers and BPAY via CBA's NetBank, mobile banking and telephone banking, as well as associated EFTPOS and ATMs. In-bank transactions were also slowed down.

The bank stated on its web site yesterday that the problem had been fixed and all banking activities had returned to normal by noon, Sydney time.

Well, not quite.

For by early afternoon, word was spreading via the press and social media sites that CBA's ATMs across the country were dispensing "free cash."

CBA quickly tried to quash this notion by saying that its 4000 ATMs were not giving away money but were in fact in "standby mode" which meant that the ATMs "can't identify the customers' account balance", according to this story in The Australian.

The bank said, in apparent shock, horror and disbelief, that:

"Some have deliberately withdrawn more money than is in their account."

The Australian story quoted New South Wales Police state fraud chief Detective Superintendent Col Dyson as warning folks who took out more money than they were entitled to could face criminal charges if they did not return the money to the bank. Detective Superintendent Dyson was quoted in The Australian story above as saying:

"People should realise that even though an ATM has dispensed cash, they are not entitled to that money and are committing a criminal offence if they keep it... They should also realise that ATM locations are covered extensively by surveillance."

This stern warning, of course, fell on deaf ears, as long queues of up to 50 people quickly lined up in front of CBA's ATMs as individuals sought to claim their perceived windfall. Police and bank security guards had to be called in to control the crowds in some locations.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald story about the episode, it appears that CBA decided to allow the ATMs to continue to operate instead of shutting them down until the system problem was completely fixed to help its customers out. The Herald also reports that the bank is refusing to say how much money was overdrawn by its customers or what percentage of customers took advantage of the situation.

Of course, CBA is warning that those customers that overdrew their accounts will face overdraft fees, if they don't quickly return the excess ATM cash given them, says this story at NineMSN. All will be forgiven if they do, CBA says.

A cynic might think that CBA's management deliberately decided not to shut down its ATM systems yesterday because it was secretly hoping to get its customers to overdraw their accounts. After all, if a customer couldn't determine how much money he or she could withdraw without incurring a fee because the ATM couldn't tell them their current account balance, it is highly likely that many CBA customers would withdraw more cash than their accounts allowed just by accident. Keeping the ATMs operating but only partially functional yesterday almost looks like a form of overdraft fee entrapment.

But that thought might give CBA management more credit than it deserves.

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