Maybe they should've left home without it

Glitch: A Y2K problem led local businesses to overbill credit card customers a total of more than $100,000.

February 15, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Power grids might not have crashed, the phone system might not have failed to function and water taps might not have run dry.

But don't tell the owner and several patrons of Kawasaki restaurant in downtown Baltimore that the rollover to 2000 was totally smooth.

They have the bad memories, paperwork and, in some cases, lingering problems to prove otherwise.

Because of a glitch in software that processes credit card and debit card transactions that went undetected for several days early last month, the restaurant kept billing and billing and billing.

Nor was Kawasaki alone. Several other area businesses, including Velleggia's restaurant in Little Italy and Garland's Garden Center in Catonsville, had similar problems.

At Kawasaki, unsuspecting patrons were charged up to a dozen times for the same meal, resulting in depleted accounts, bounced checks and hours spent straightening out balances with banks and credit card companies.

The Japanese restaurant on North Charles Street said it inadvertently overbilled diners $82,105.21 -- money it has been busy reimbursing on its own or through credit card companies.

"I was very surprised. To my knowledge, it was the only Y2K problem to have occurred," said Mike Mangiaracina of Catonsville, whose check card was debited 12 times for a New Year's Eve meal of $56.25, for an overcharge of $618.75.

Mangiaracina, a private school teacher whos checking account balance dwindled to $11.26 because of the overcharges, said friends who hear about his tale "think it's really funny." But he added ruefully, "It's quite a saga to have gone through."

It is unclear even now, weeks later, how many other businesses nationwide might have had problems with software provided by Virginia-based CyberCash.

Sydney Rubin, a spokeswoman for CyberCash, said she could not say how many of the company's 133,000 business customers were affected but added, "Our guess-timate is that it was a really small percentage."

CyberCash made extensive efforts to publicize the need for an upgrade but users might have failed to register their software or bought the package from a reseller, she said.

Visa and MasterCard, which issued public warnings of the problem Jan. 6, said they could not say how many of their cardholders were affected but said the number appeared to be small.

Frank Velleggia of Velleggia's Restaurant said diners were overbilled about $16,000 before he discovered the problem a few days into the new year.

"It's all straightened out," he said.

Garland's Garden Center in Catonsville overbilled its customers "over $20,000" before it was alerted to the problem bya credit card company Jan. 7, said general manager Matthew Thierer.

"Anybody that charged something on the 2nd was also charged on the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th," he said.

Checking software

Garland's upgraded and checked its software several months ago, apparently before CyberCash posted a notice on its Web site about the need for a patch to deal with Y2K-related recurring billings, Thierer said.

"In hindsight, we should have checked again closer to Christmas," Thierer said. "For the next millennium, we'll make a note of this.

"I'm sorry it was me, but I was glad to see after all the Y2K hype that something actually happened," he said.

Kawasaki hit hard

Kawasaki was harder hit than most businesses, in part because it didn't notice the problem until mid-January. The restaurant gave out several $25 gift certificates to diners who contacted it directly to make amends, and is trying to reconcile its accounts and those of some of its customers.

"I feel terribly bad for the customer," said owner Tsu Ming Yang. "It's a headache for the individual."

Mangiaracina can attest to that. The math and science teacher at Thornton Friends School in Silver Spring missed several hours of work resolving the problem and spent a week without a check card after his bank decided the best solution was to confiscate his card and issue him a new one.

"Everything worked out OK in the end, but there was a lot of inconvenience," he said.

Rita Rhen had dinner at Kawasaki with a friend New Year's Eve. Her bill was $41.18, which she paid with her check card.

Two weeks later, she went to get money from an automated teller machine before getting her car from a parking lot and was told by the machine that she had insufficient funds to cover the withdrawal.

"I had to borrow money from a co-worker," said Rhen, a technical writer from Owings Mills. "I had no idea what happened."

As she learned on a visit to her bank, what happened was that Rhen's account had been debited $41.18 every day but two from Jan. 1 through Jan. 14 -- an overcharge of $452.98.

Eye-opening experiences

Rhen said it took to the end of last month to resolve the problem and said the experience was an eye-opener.

"I was surprised," she said. "I was one of the people scoffing at the Y2K buzz. I never thought it could be a problem."

Sheila Garrity, managing editor of a medical journal at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, had an $82 New Year's Eve dinner at Kawasaki. About a week later, she discovered she had been billed eight times for the meal.

The restaurant issued her a $574 check for the overcharges, then mistakenly billed her twice more, a charge for which it reimbursed her again.

"I do hope this problem is now solved," Garrity wrote in a note to Kawasaki late last month. "If I dine at your establishment in the future, I will pay for my bill with cash."

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