London city staff were returning premature withdrawals of July property tax on Friday

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City staff were scrambling Friday to clear up a major snafu that saw a total of $17 million taken automatically and prematurely from the bank accounts of 33,000 London taxpayers to cover July property taxes.

Though we love to blame computers or malicious hackers for every glitch, city hall was quick to admit it was plain old human error.

A London-based technology analyst says that’s usually the case as disaster can flow from one errant keystroke.

“We think technology is the answer to everything, but it only takes one person to mess it up,” said Carmi Levy.

It’s also not that rare.

London city officials say it’s the first major glitch since the automatic payment system was set up 20 years ago. But Toronto ran into a similar problem in March, when 44,000 taxpayers were double-billed on their property taxes and the city had to refund $87 million. Someone had mistakenly sent a file to an automated bank billing system twice.

Just last month, thousands of British Airways travellers were stranded when an IT worker accidentally shut down power to a data system.

Levy said most systems are designed with prompts and safeguards to prevent disastrous errors, but somehow, operators ignore them or find a way around them.

“Someone has to design the computer, operate it, maintain it,” he said. “We shouldn’t be upset with technology. It’s the people responsible for the technology.”

Jim Logan, the city’s division manager for taxation and revenue, was still busy Friday ensuring banks had refunded all the money erroneously withdrawn.

In some cases, the money was taken out and then replaced. In other cases, a refund was made and then pulled back if the automated withdrawal had not been made.

Logan said the city also is dealing with complaints from taxpayers facing charges for NSF cheques or similar complications because of the error.

Logan said the system will be fixed to prevent such errors.

“It was a human error, but we are doing a review to ensure it does not happen again.”

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