The millennium bug is already with us

Mark Rowe reports on the problems experienced by holders of credit cards with an expiry date of 2000
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THE millennium bug, the threat to technology whereby computers are unable to recognise the last two digits of the year 2000, is already with us. Thousands of credit-card holders are having their plastic rejected at tills across Britain because their expiry date ends in 00.

The problem is still so far from being resolved that some of the large credit-card companies are refusing to issue cards with a 2000 expiry date.

Last week, the Government launched its own Action 2000 Millennium Bug task force. It has plenty of work: Barclays Bank alone has admitted it has had around 300 complaints from customers with new cards since they were issued last October.

The millennium bug problem is caused by most computers being configured to recognise a year date with 19 followed by two digits. When faced with 00 the computer assumes the date is 1900 and rejects the command.

A number of credit-card companies, including American Express and Access, are so concerned that they have still not issued cards for the millennium. American Express, which has 41.5 million card holders across the world, usually issues cards that are valid for three years. In order to avoid the expiry date of 2000, it has sent out cards with two-year expiry dates and, as 2000 gets closer, it is now issuing plastic that is valid until 12/99.

"We won't issue 2000 cards until we are sure 99.9 per cent of retailers can cope with them," said a spokeswoman. "We know that our hand will be forced one way or another before long but we're holding back to avoid inconvenience to our customers." The company's own task force, Milleniax, is monitoring the efforts of retailers and businesses.

Visa International only began to let its 20,000 member banks issue cards with the year 00 on them last October, a year later than planned. "We took a business decision in the end to release them. We are entirely confident that cash tills can cope with them," said a spokesman. "We have 600 million Visa card holders across the world so there are millions of 00s out there going through smoothly and only a few exceptions."

Robin Guenier, executive director of Taskforce 2000, an independent advisory body, said delaying the cards was costly. "Turning a credit card round in such a short space of time involves an incredible increase in paperwork and cost," he said.

Alison Aspinall, 40, of Heswall, Merseyside, is among the first to face millennium bug hiccups. She tried use her Barclays Connect card at a Gulf petrol station in Birkenhead last December. "The card would not go through and they had to process it manually by using an old-fashioned carbon copy," she said.

"My first reaction was that it was my card that was wrong and that I'd have problems everywhere with it. But I've used it elsewhere with no difficulty. It means Gulf lose out because I get my petrol elsewhere to avoid any delays and hassle."

A spokeswoman for Shell UK, which took over the marketing of Gulf Oil GB's 445 petrol stations at the end of last year, said that the company had inherited the out-dated equipment. "We assume Gulf thought it would have been silly to invest money in new equipment before the takeover," she said.

The Swedish furniture store Ikea has also had problems with some of its swiping machines. Recently, a customer tried to pay using a credit card with a 00 expiry date but found that the machine used to read the card could not cope. Ikea has had to replace the software in its swiping terminal despite having already upgraded it.

NatWest, supplier of the machine, said customers were not being inconvenienced. "We have 170,000 Streamlining (swiping) machines in the UK and fewer than 100 have had this problem. We hope to get the software updated by the end of the month," said spokesman Nick Gill.

Mr Guenier said the credit-card problems could be a precursor of things to come. Taskforce 2000 has warned of a possible "Millennium Meltdown" on 1 January 2000, with planes, hospitals, lifts and banking services hit by the bug.