If Twitter is testimony to our emotional state, a bank’s website and app suddenly going down is irksome at best — and deeply alarming at worst. Worries about accessing money, paying bills on time and avoiding overdraft fees abound in customers’ tweets, whether it’s during a minor glitch or a widespread outage.
It seems no bank is immune to these problems. Technical outages happen to financial institutions – online-only and brick-and-mortar alike — worldwide. In the U.K., major banks suffer from an outage more than once a month, according to data made public earlier this year. While the U.S. doesn’t have comparable data yet, technical glitches happen at institutions here, too, just as they do on services like Slack and Instagram.
The reasons why, of course, vary. A planned maintenance update at a bank could hit a snag, delaying customers’ access to their digital bank accounts. Or, an outage might occur because of something more extreme. In February, Wells Fargo’s customers had problems with their accounts for days. The system issues occurred after routine maintenance at one of its facilities left behind smoke and the power shut down, according to the bank’s press release.
The good news is that banks are in the business of guarding your assets, so while you can’t access your accounts, they are at least safe in the vast majority of cases.
“Customers should find solace from the fact that fundamentally, despite these outages, their money is not at risk,” says Nitin Tandon, a principal at Deloitte Consulting.
You’ll probably feel frustrated by the inconvenience. Still, there are steps you can take to reduce your concerns when your bank encounters technical complications. Here’s what to do.
1. Don’t panic when there is an outage
We know. It’s easy to feel freaked out. The idea that you’re unable to see your bank account balance when you live paycheck to paycheck or need to pay a bill pronto is scary.
But if your bank is out of order online, feel secure in knowing the institution will restore the service as soon as it can. Banks have multiple layers of checks and balances in place to make sure that your account is secure and safe — redundant data centers included.
“Try not to panic too much if you can’t login; it’s still there,” says Paul Benda, senior vice president, risk and cybersecurity policy at the American Bankers Association.
You may want to check the bank’s social media handles for information on what happened and when the institution believes it can restore service to calm your mind.
2. Try another banking channel to log in to your account
Beyond waiting it out, you can try another bank channel. If the mobile banking app is out, try logging into online banking on a laptop or on another device. If online banking doesn’t work, try the bank’s branch or its call center.
“It is very rare that there would be an outage at a bank that would cover all four of those different access points,” Benda says.
Keep in mind, however, that contacting the call center could cause frustrations. If there’s an unplanned problem at the bank, there’s a good chance that the institution is getting bombarded with calls so you might have a long wait time.
Another avenue to consider: visit an ATM to get your bank balance or to take out cash.
“You always have the fallbacks,” says Jim Burson, a senior director with Cornerstone Advisors, a banking consultancy firm based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
3. Pay bills directly with creditors
If you’re stressed out about paying a bill on time, you have another option: go to the website of the creditor or service provider, and have the money pulled from your account.
In the future, your window for worrying about paying bills on time may become much smaller. The industry is working on ways to enable consumers to pay bills in real time. So, if there is an outage, you won’t feel stressed about scheduling a bill payment days ahead of its due date like you do now. Instead, you could pay it immediately after service is restored.
4. Check for fees, fraudulent activity after you’re back online
If you have incurred any fee — including overdraft fees — because of a bank outage, contact your financial institution to request a refund. Some banks will automatically refund certain fees like Wells Fargo did in its recent high-profile outage.
You may also want to keep a close eye on your accounts in the weeks to come after an outage. Fraudsters’ attempts to impersonate you typically spike during an outage, says Shirley Inscoe, a senior analyst with Aite Group, a research and consultancy firm based in Boston.
To combat their efforts, she suggests double checking all transactions in your account after an incident.
“It only takes two or three minutes to just sign in and look over the activity and make sure ‘yes, I did all of those things and all of that looks right,’ and sign back out,” Inscoe says.
5. Ditch the idea of getting a back-up option, unless …
You may feel like you want to have a backup bank account to avoid this scenario again, but that approach is an extreme one. While an occasional outage isn’t rare, repeated outages at the same bank would signal a problem. If you feel like a backup bank is necessary, you ought to do something bolder.
“If I’m having too many outages with my bank, I would go find another bank that has less outages,” Deloitte’s Tandon says.
His point underscores what experts encourage: hold your bank accountable for the service it’s delivering.
“The expectation of many of our clients is — and should be — that [banks are] no different than the power company,” says Ken Meyer, chief technology officer for consumer banking at SunTrust. “They expect us to work.”