Man Accidentally Finds an ATM Glitch and Withdraws $1.6 Million—Here's What Happened Next

29-year-old went on a massive five-month-long spending spree.

A glitchy ATM accidentally allowed an Australian bartender to withdraw $1.6 million, enabling the 29-year-old to go on a massive five-month-long spending spree. Dan Saunders was out drinking in his hometown of Wangaratta when he left the bar to get cash and discovered an ATM was allowing him to withdraw much more than his balance. Saunders realized he'd found a loophole and decided to exploit it. On the Vice podcast "Extremes," he talked about how he spent the money—wild parties, private jets—and how it all came to an end.

A Lucrative Discovery: "I Could Create Money"

Man's hand inserting ATM credit card into bank machine to transfer money or withdraw - Image
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Saunders said that on his night out, he tried to get a balance and transfer $200 from his credit account to his savings. The ATM rejected the transactions. Puzzled (and "tipsy and bored"), he "started playing around" with the transfer function and realized he could transfer money without the bank deducting from his account—an unlimited amount of money.

"I figured there was a lag between what the ATM gave me and what my bank balance was, which meant that whatever I spent, I could cover it by doing a simple transfer every night between my credit account and my savings," he said. "I could 'create' the money by doing a transfer between 1 and 3 in the morning, which is when I realized ATMs go offline."

Tricking the System

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To keep up with the ruse, he had stay one day ahead. "On the first day I spent $2,000, but on the second day I transferred $4,000 to make sure my balance didn't stay negative. The transfer at night would go through, then reverse one day later.

But if you stayed ahead of that reversal by doing another one, you could trick the system into thinking you had millions." "I later went to the bank, who told me my balance was $1 million. It was numbers on a screen going back and forth like yo-yos," he added.

"I Felt Like a Caveman Discovering Fire"

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Saunders didn't take long to start spending. First, he gave his girlfriend $1,000, then he bought a few rounds for the whole bar. "Being able to make your account balance move up into the millions by the stroke of a key was a very addictive thing," he said. "I felt like a caveman discovering fire." He realized the perception of wealth changed people's attitudes toward him.

"I can remember going to the bank to get some money out and the lady behind the counter saw my balance and her whole attitude just changed," he said. "She was suddenly in awe of this guy who had millions of dollars in his bank account. That's what it's like to be rich. People change their thinking about you and change their demeanour."

Some Friends Egged Him On

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Worried about his family's disapproval, Saunders didn't tell them about his faux windfall. He did let friends in on the secret; some advised him to stop while others egged him on. "Most of them were like, 'Okay, you're that kind of guy who likes to ride the wave. I get what you're doing. We'll come along for a bit of the ride.'"

Saunders told people he met that he was an investment banker or in real estate, or "heaps of different things." He found "no one really cared that much. They knew I had a lot of money; they didn't care where it came from."

How He Spent the Money

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But he soon started worrying about getting caught and the potential repercussions. He started having anxiety attacks and nightmares about being apprehended by SWAT teams. "If you've pretty much done the 'right thing' for the best part of your life and then start doing the 'wrong thing' your body freaks out," he said.  Four-and-a-half months after he was flooded with cash, Saunders confided in his therapist, who told him it was time to turn himself in.

Ultimately, he spent more than $1.6 million. A typical purchase: charting a 20-seater private jet for his friend for $62,000. He rented huge estates to host pool parties, paid off friends' student loans, and paid for one friend to study in France.

Confession Fell on Deaf Ears

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Saunders said he never contacted the police; he stopped doing the transfers and contacted the bank in June and July 2011. They told me: 'It's a police matter now we can't talk to you. They will contact you, you're in a lot of trouble,' and that was it. All I was going to say was that I had $80,000 in a Hilton Laundry bag and they were welcome to take it." Then he heard nothing for two years. Wanting to clear his conscience and move on with his life, he took his story to newspapers and TV. "Basically it took three print stories and an appearance on national TV to be taken seriously," he said. 

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"I felt like Macaulay Culkin after Home Alone 2"

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It took another year for Saunders to be arrested and charged on 111 counts of fraud and theft.  He thought "I was going to get totally reamed" in court. "But the court was weird because no one actually understood what I did—not the judge, not the prosecutor—so it was very odd. There were many blank looks. The bank provided minimal evidence, so it was really just a case of 'bad Dan, cop a whack' and that's it."  Saunders pleaded guilty. He served one year in prison and 18 months of community service.  Today, "I learned that faced with temptation it's easy to lose your true self, but I'm slowly getting back to neutral," he said. "I felt like Macaulay Culkin after Home Alone 2: like you're hot one minute, and then you're sort of not the next, and it's a bit hard to take."

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