Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.
Happy bailout day! Here’s your … 404 error?
Numerous financial services suffered website and app outages on Wednesday morning, just as the IRS began distributing stimulus payments via direct deposit to more than 80 million Americans to counteract the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis. Hordes of users checking to see whether they received their money inundated banking sites, while others attempting to address tax filing issues overwhelmed the IRS’ and TurboTax’s sites.
The payments are a result of the $2 trillion emergency spending bill that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law at the end of March. Americans making $75,000 or less per year are eligible to receive $1,200 and an additional $500 per child. The IRS is primarily relying on the direct deposit information that people put down on their 2018 or 2019 tax returns to deliver the payments. The agency is also sending out physical checks to people who did not provide that info, though these payments will take longer to arrive.
U.S. Bank, Citizens Bank, SunTrust, Santander, TD Bank, Capital One, PNC, TurboTax, and BB&T all acknowledged issues with their web services through their official and customer support Twitter accounts on Wednesday morning. TD Bank and TurboTax both explicitly mentioned high traffic volume as a reason for the disruptions. Citi also notified customers that its phone lines were clogged due to the stimulus effort. According to Ookla’s Downdetector, an internet outage tracker that relies on user reports, websites for the IRS, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo were also experiencing more problems than usual. It appears that many of the outage reports spiked around 9 or 10 a.m. EST. All morning, users flooded Twitter with complaints about their struggles to access online bank accounts and other services.
Doug Suttles, Ookla’s CEO and co-founder, says this is the first time he’s seen so many banking sites fail at the same time. “Online banking got hit hard because there are a lot of stimulus payments flowing in. So many people are checking, and if they’ve gotten money, they’re moving money, so it’s put a massive strain on the bank systems,” he said. “There’s nothing the banks could do to prepare for this. They were given a few weeks’ notice—they can’t revamp their technology or fortify their infrastructure to be able to handle this.” Suttles predicted that this would be a one-off fiasco—unless people didn’t end up receiving the payments when they checked, in which case the websites could see similar spikes in the days to come.
Financial services sites are only the latest sector of the internet to feel the strain of coronavirus-fueled traffic. Unemployment sites, video game servers, and broadband networks have also been having a tough time keeping up with the needs of an increasingly online population. Video-streaming sites have been downgrading their picture quality in order to relieve some of the burden, and even Facebook has been scrambling to keep up with soaring app usage and news consumption.