The shutdown of Banco Pichincha’s online services due to a cyberattack has sparked angry reaction from customers and the explanation offered by the bank’s largest shareholder isn’t helping matters. Pichincha, Ecuador’s largest bank, disabled all internet services last Friday, claiming it had suffered “multiple hacks by criminals.”
On Tuesday, the bank said it had established a “mirror site” offering some services but most customers claim they are unable to access it. On Thursday, there were long lines of outside bank offices around the country and bank employees were attempting to assist other customers at ATM locations.
Twitter comments offered Wednesday by Pichincha majority owner Fidel Egas only inflamed the criticism being aired on talk radio programs and social media. “We regret the difficulties being faced by our customers but this is a situation beyond our control,” he said. “We are victims too.” He added that all client money is secure and that the bank’s tech team is working “24 hours a day” to restore all banking systems.
Customers complained not only of the difficulty of getting cash from their accounts but the inability to to make transfers and to get information about whether transfers had been completed. Some complained that scheduled online payments to utility companies had not been made while others said they had not received receipts for payments. “It is outrageous that a bank that controls a quarter of the country’s money does not have backup systems for problems like this,” an angry customer said on a Cuenca radio talk show. “This is a disaster for many of us and we are told only that they are sorry.”
In reaction to Egas’ Tweet, social media posters pointed out that Pichincha has suffered other hacks in recent month and apparently did nothing to strengthen security. “This happened early this year and the private information of 300,000 customers was stolen and the bank said it would not happen again,” said one poster. “They lied to us then and they are lying to us again.”
In the National Assembly, the Pichincha shutdown has prompted calls for an investigation and the resignation of Bank Superintendent Ruth Arregui. “This is an inexcusable inconvenience to the bank’s five million customers,” says Pachakutik Assemblyman Darwin Perera. “It is a national disgrace that the country’s largest bank cannot offer the services it promises, that people are forced to stand in line for hours to get their money. Pichincha has been warned many times that its cyber security was inadequate and it appears they have done nothing about it.”
Among rumors circulating on social media is that the bank has lost hundreds of millions of dollars to Russian and North Korean hackers. “Are we facing 1999 and 2000 all over again?” asked one Facebook commenter, referring the banking crisis in which hundreds of thousands lost their life’s savings.
Meanwhile, it was unclear Thursday if online service problems at other banks, including Banco Guayaquil and Banco Internacional, were related to Pichincha’s or if other banks had suffered hacks as well. Customers complained about being unable to transfer funds and take money from foreign bank accounts at ATMs.
A spokeswoman for Internacional said it was a coincidence that its system problems occurred at the same time as Pichincha’s. “We performed scheduled maintenance last weekend to upgrade our services and, unfortunately, the upgrades have taken longer than expected. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Social media posters and Perera are demanding to know why the government is not providing more information to customers and to the public. “The superintendent and the Central Bank are responsible for banking oversight and making sure there are backup systems when problems like this occur,” Perera said. “There are multiple failures in this case, in both the private and public sectors.”