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E*Trade glitch brings illusion of riches

The online financial services company experiences a system glitch that alters the balances of a "handful" of members. No one should buy a yacht just yet, though.

For a brief time, Vince Humphreys thought he was suddenly a rich man. Make that a very rich man. As in $168 billion richer.

That's the amount that showed in his cash balance when Humphreys opened his E*Trade account Friday morning.

"I didn't know what to think," Humphreys said. "So a few of my buddies and co-workers and I went to Starbucks and figured out ways to spend it.

"Then reality set in that I'd probably go to jail."

Actually, Humphreys probably didn't need to worry. E*Trade was experiencing a system glitch that altered the displayed balances of a "handful" of members, said company spokeswoman Connie Dotson. Although she declined to comment specifically on Humphreys' account, Dotson said the glitch could explain why his account might have displayed a cash balance larger than Portugal's gross domestic product.

"It would have been a display issue only," Dotson said. "No transactions could have been placed."

Glitches are not new among online financial services companies. Last year, a display problem at Quicken's Web site caused some accounts to duplicate transactions. Meanwhile, a problem at Charles Schwab last year prevented customers from accessing their accounts or receiving trade confirmations.

The glitch on E*Trade affected a few institutional accounts that investors use to sell stock options, Dotson said. For a number of such accounts with zero balances, E*Trade's system didn't recognize that as an acceptable balance and filled in numbers instead, she said.

"They are fixing it right now," Dotson said.

On Friday afternoon, Humphreys' account was still showing its multibillion-dollar balance.

"As each second ticks by I am getting more tempted to do a little transferring," Humphreys said in an e-mail. "I hear that there are a few islands in the South Pacific that are going cheap."