Computer Glitch Makes Man Billionaire for a Minute [Video]

If someone looks at their bank account and sees nine digits, you'd think they'd be happy. But when Otelo Vizcaino saw $999.99 million in his checking account, he panicked. The website manager for Ripley Entertainment Inc. was the victim of a computer glitch, one of many digital hiccups that have spread a lot of misery in the last few years, and cost taxpayers millions.

SunTrust Banks Inc. froze Vizcaino's account last week, and generated its standard code -- $999,999,999.99 -- to signal to bank employees that the account was on hold. That sum showed up on Vizcaino's rolls, making him a penny short of a billionaire. But he had no time to enjoy it. With no access to funds, he had to quickly scramble to find cash to pay creditors, getting an urgent cash advance from his employer.

"I was a billionaire for a minute, and I have nothing to show for it but grief," Vizcaino told the Orlando Sentinel.

Much administrative work has become computerized over the last couple decades, cutting jobs out of the American workforce, while improving productivity. But sometimes automation costs more money than it creates.

In September 2008, the Georgia Department of Labor deposited 46,373 duplicate unemployment checks, costing the state $12 million. The high number of unemployment claims caused a computer malfunction, according to Carl Winter, a computer engineer at the Labor Department, and reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Almost all the money has been recovered since then, but $115,000 is still outstanding. The government spent more than $19,000 on mail alerts to benefit recipients, politely asking them to give the cash back.

In Pennsylvania, the problem was the reverse. Computer errors caused the state's unemployment website to stutter and stall in March 2010, preventing people from filing their claims, and costing the state $68,000.

New York state, on the other hand, was overly generous with its benefits. Over a decade, the government paid out $140 million in Medicaid benefits to individuals accidentally and undeservedly on the public health-insurance rolls.

"The gross money lost is just astounding," said city Assistant Corporation Counsel John Low-Beer to the New York Post.

In January this year, Pinckneyville, Illinois, "the friendly little city" of 5,500, discovered that it had suffered a slightly smaller, but still painful, hit.

A short circuit in utility billing software led the city to undercharge its biggest national gas customers, like the correctional facility, hospital and high school, an estimated $130,000.

"You look back over the past year and a half and think of all the suffering we went through to make ends meet. And it could have been better," Mayor Joe Holder told KFVS12.

New Orleans was also kicked when it was down back in December 2010, thanks to a computer crash that stalled all homebuying transactions. The delay cost the Big Easy tens of thousands of dollars in lost house transaction and property refinance fees.

"The city's not in any situation to be losing out on any money," real estate agent Katie Witry told Fox 8.

Sometimes computer hitches don't just cost money, they dash dreams. Tens of not so lucky Vermontians won the lottery in August, 2010, after a computer malfunction spat out 72 nearly identical winning tickets.

20,000 people worldwide also thought they won the lottery in May this year -- the green card lottery. Every year, the U.S. State Department offers individuals the chance to immigrate to the U.S. without the standard family or employer sponsor in a wild-card visa raffle that attracts 15 million applicants. This year, however, a data coding error handed thousands of would-be immigrants the holy grail. The State Department then had to apologetically snatch it away.

Technology has undoubtedly increased our efficiency, productivity, and wealth, but it's also made our systems more vulnerable. A slip of code can cost thousands and even millions, which several cities and states have learned the hard way in the last few years.

Of course, humans make mistakes too. And with Americans overworked now more than ever, laboring 122 more hours per year than the British and 378 more hours than the Germans, it might just be safer to trust machine over man.

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