A website issue at the Secretary of State’s Office led to hundreds of Montana businesses being overcharged for filing required annual reports to the state. Lee Newspapers reporter Holly Michels broke that story. She shares her reporting with Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates-Carney.
Corin Cates-Carney What led to these duplicate transactions for businesses when they were trying to file these required annual reports to the state?
Holly Michels In talking with the Secretary of State's office and then reading through emails that businesses sent into the office after they ran into this problem, it looks like it was an issue with a security feature within the Google Chrome browser. So, people who got onto the website using Google Chrome and tried to make their payments and file their reports would get error messages kicking back, saying that their transaction hadn't gone through or hadn't been processed properly, which would trigger them to go in and try to do the filing process a second time, which is where they got charged. Some people kept trying multiple times and had several charges.
Corin Cates-Carney Do we know how many businesses typically were impacted and how much they were overcharged?
Holly Michels We don't know exactly. What I was able to confirm from a database that I was provided a copy of with, and then confirming what the secretary of state's office, there were 1,200charges that had been made that were refunded. And so your business could have paid double. They could've waited three or four times. So it's hard to say what 1,200 charges equates to in terms of businesses that were affected. I did ask the Secretary of State's office if they could provide a number of businesses that had been refunded, totaled. There might be beyond the toll hundred that I was able to confirm. They didn't respond to that request. I also asked if they had a number of businesses or a number of charges, duplicate charges, that were made. I couldn't get information on that either. So there's not a lot of clarity on how many businesses exactly may have been affected by this.
Corin Cates-Carney And what else have you been able to learn about how this website error has impacted businesses in the state?
Holly Michels So, some businesses caught the extra charges right away and they had to e-mail in to ask to have their money refunded. The secretary of state's office did respond to a question I asked about if they had proactively reached out to businesses. And they said because they felt it affected such a small amount of transactions that they didn't need to do that. But some businesses didn't find out about the double charges, because they're paying, probably, from a business account. So, like you or I would probably pretty quickly notice 20 extra dollars missing from a bank account, but business accounts probably function a little differently. But some businesses in July, which is when a business that didn't make the filing deadline would have notice of, like, involuntary disillusion or something, saying, 'hey didn't get your paperwork in on time,' that's when some of these businesses first found out that the transaction process didn't go through properly, that they've been charged multiple times and went back and check their bank accounts and then had to go in, redo their filing, pay a late fee and then request to be refunded for the charges that they had been doubled up on before. Plus, some of them asked for that late fee back because they felt they'd registered on time the first go around.
Corin Cates-Carney Secretary of State Corey Stapleton says this was impacting a very small percentage of their total customers. Is this issue taken care of at this point?
Holly Michels So, they said that they had this issue squared away with the Google Chrome and their software company that, you know, would provide this website service to them. They said that had been fixed by April 5th of this year. I did have an email that showed that someone tried to go in on April 7, They were told the website issue was fixed, and they ran into it again on April 7. And then some emails from as recently as just September with people having duplicate charges again. It's unclear if this is a different Chrome issue, different issue entirely. But the issue of duplicate charges did occur for some businesses, in e-mails that I was able to look at as recently as last month.
Corin Cates-Carney Stapleton's deputy, Christi Jacobsen, is a Republican running for the secretary of state job against Democrat Bryce Bennett. Are the campaigns weighing into this issue with this news coming out so close to election day?
Holly Michels Jacobsen's campaign has not. Bennett's campaign, as you'd probably expect, is using this as a campaign point. In the last week of the election here, they held a press conference at the state Capitol on Sunday to talk about the issue. Bennett is calling for an investigation, an audit into what's happened here to get more answers. It is unclear what the mechanism for that would be.
Corin Cates-Carney Got it. Holly Michels is a reporter with Lee Newspapers. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.