Buying a Train Ticket, and Being Taken for a $23 Quadrillion Ride

Lydia Alcock doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who would run up a $23 quadrillion bill on her Visa Buxx card.

She is a seemingly responsible sophomore at Johns Hopkins University interested in psychology and museum studies. Typical charges to her card include $5.26 for pizza, $21.15 for flip-flops with her sorority’s Greek letters on them and $1.47 for raspberry iced tea. Her father got her the card when she was 13 so that Lydia could learn to be responsible about money; a grandmother trained at the London School of Economics is something of an obsessive about frugality.

And, yet, when Ms. Alcock clicked on her account earlier this month, there it was: $23,148,855,308,184,500. Plus a $20 negative balance fee from Wachovia Bank, which under the circumstances, seemed pretty reasonable.

But wait. It turns out this was not for a splurge on iPods, iTunes, iPhones, Juicy Couture or the gross world product, but for a single train ride (off-peak!) on Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central to Goldens Bridge. The usual cost is $10.

Ms. Alcock looked. She looked again. She gasped. She laughed. She shouted to her father: “Dad, you need to come here. Right now.” And then after realizing, to her chagrin, that she owed the staggering sum, not that she was the recipient of a tidy little windfall, she typed into Google: “How to say really big numbers,” and cut and pasted $23,148,855,308,184,500. It read: “twenty-three quadrillion, one hundred forty-eight trillion, eight hundred fifty-five billion, three hundred eight million, one hundred eighty-four thousand, five hundred dollars.”

In the end, phew, Ms. Alcock will not have to spend the rest of her life chipping away at the bill. Instead she joins more than 12,000 Visa customers (or “fewer than 13,000” as the company puts it) who for a day seemed to be the biggest debtors in world history.

Ms. Alcock, 18, discovered the problem when she returned from a trip to Baltimore and got an e-mail notice that she had overdrawn her account, something she had never done before. She worried that someone had obtained her card number until she went to her account and realized that $23 quadrillion was probably beyond even the most energetic credit card thief.

Her father, Martin, who runs Naked Earth, a company that sells environmentally friendly products like vegan cheese and fallen palm leaves used as plates, called Wachovia. And after waiting on hold for a half-hour, he got the word that, yes, there had been some kind of error that was being corrected. The next day, the $20 fee was still there, but then that disappeared too.

Visa said there had been “a temporary programming error” during a regularly scheduled systems upgrade that caused some transactions on prepaid cards to be inaccurately posted. “No one was actually charged $23 quadrillion,” a spokeswoman, Elvira Swanson, said reassuringly. The company said the “technical glitch” had no financial impact on Visa cardholders.

Victims have popped up on the Internet or in news stories, including Josh Muszynski, 22, of Manchester, N.H., who ran up his bill buying Camel cigarettes at a Mobil station. Others include a diner at Applebee’s and a shopper at CVS. “My lectures about financial responsibility appear to have failed: yesterday she charged $23,148,855,308,184,500.00 at the drugstore,” went one online post. “Well, at least she wasn’t texting. Those charges really add up,” added another. “I always said when they started charging $23 quadrillion a pack, I’d quit,” read a third.

It was perhaps unfortunate that some of those affected used the Visa Buxx card, which is pitched as “the ultimate tool for teaching your teen financial responsibility with peace of mind.” But Ms. Alcock said the incident was a helpful reminder about the importance of checking those statements — chances are not every error is as conspicuous as a $23 quadrillion train ride. Her father said he was a bit disappointed that the bank never apologized or explained what happened, perhaps figuring the relief of not being $23 quadrillion in the red was balm enough.

The story, a perfect silly-season summer news story, got surprisingly little traction in the news universe. This could be a reflection of how hard it is to compete in the cavalcade of Michael Jackson/Sarah Palin/Randy Republican/man-on-the-moon news events.

Or maybe, given all the billion- and even trillion-dollar figures being thrown around for bailouts and economic dislocation and the rest, a quadrillion just isn’t what it used to be. That would be a shame. After all, updated for inflation, the old saying is still true: a quadrillion here and a quadrillion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.