NerdWallet: What to do if your bank has an outage

Many Wells Fargo WFC, -0.89%   customers woke last week to find they couldn’t access their accounts — whether to get cash, pay bills or swipe a debit card for gas.

The giant’s online banking and mobile apps experienced apparently widespread outages, and its automated systems and customer service representatives were unable to access detailed account information, according to an automated phone response. “We’re working to restore services as soon as possible,” said Jacob Jordan, Wells Fargo assistant vice president for corporate communications, by phone.

By midday, the bank announced via Twitter TWTR, -2.56%   that the issues were due to a power shutdown in response to smoke detected during facility maintenance.

If you’re affected by a bank outage like this, here’s what you need to know.

What to do right away

How to check your bank balance: If you can’t access your account information online, a phone representative may be able to provide limited information about the money in your accounts, based on the bank’s records before the system’s issues began. Call or text customer service, or visit a local branch.

How to get cash: It’s possible that tellers may be able to check your balance and allow some deposits and withdrawals. But until the bank’s systems are fully back up and running, it could be difficult to get cash.

Stay alert to possible fraud. Keep your eyes open for potential fraudsters who might contact you and claim to be from your bank. If they ask for personal information, it could be a phishing attempt designed to get your account information and, eventually, your money. You can avoid getting tricked by not responding and by contacting the bank through official means, such as its customer service number.

What to do next

The Wells Fargo outage is probably not going to be the last time a bank experiences a tech failure. Take these steps to prepare for the next one, regardless of where you bank.

Review your records. During an outage, you may be unable to look at recent transactions in real time. When the system comes back up, check your records. If you see unauthorized transactions, contact your bank to investigate.

Establish a backup. If you have only one bank account, consider opening a second account at another bank or credit union as a contingency plan so you’re not stuck if this happens again.

“This is why you need a Plan B: a little cash stashed at home, another bank account, or more than one credit card,” says Liz Weston, NerdWallet personal finance expert. “One computer glitch, power outage or natural disaster could cut you off from your usual source of money and leave you stranded.”

Guard against fraud. While there were no early indications that the Wells Fargo outage was due to hackers, outages are a prime time for scammers to try to do more harm, says Shirley Inscoe, a senior analyst at Aite Group, a research and advisory firm.

“They know a bank’s call center is inundated, so they may try to call and impersonate a customer in order to access their account,” she says.

If successful, a fraudster could steal funds from checking, savings and even lines of credit. It’s a reminder to be vigilant against fraud in all of your financial accounts:

  • Keep strong passwords.
  • Check your transactions regularly.
  • Report suspicious transactions to your bank or credit union immediately.
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