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Y2K glitch vexes Boxing Day bargain hunters

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We've all been waiting months for this. First the good news: England's first bona fide Y2K cock-up has struck. Now the bad: it's turned out to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Indeed, if it weren't Millennium-related, it should never have qualified for notice in The Register. But it is, so it has.

We report no panic in the streets, no rivers of burning petrol, no columns of riot police sweeping through the cities; just a few English shoppers spending more than the normally-extravagant time trapped in queues this week as a century rollover glitch slowed the approvals of credit cards swiped through numerous terminal boxes made by Racal Electronics. Most of the swipe-boxes in question belong to HSBC Holdings.

The boxes are polled periodically by the bank's computers for numerous diagnostic checks and other bits of data on intervals which can be as short as a few seconds or as long as several days. At present, there is a four-day window during which the date change from 1999 to 2000 is not being recognised, Racal spokesman Nick West explained to The Register.

Shopkeepers swiping charge cards through the affected Racal machines have had the sales rejected, causing them to resort to telephone queries, which do slow the course of commerce somewhat. Up to 20,000 of Racal's estimated 180,000 terminal boxes are affected. The majority of the company's terminals don't use polling, and are therefore unaffected.

For now there is a simple workaround whereby a merchant can enter a few keystrokes before swiping a card to overcome the difficulty. The glitch is expected to correct itself on 1 January, when the system will be re-calibrated, West said.

The company hastens to add that the security of credit transactions, and the proper reckoning of account balances, are in no way affected. Disappointing news for those hoping to profit from a few electronically-misplaced charges, but there it is. Still, the century rollover is young, and hope does spring eternal, after all. ®

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