This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. If you want the full story of Dan's ATM hack, listen to the episode here
Dan Saunders was out drinking in his home town of Wangaratta, three hours north of Melbourne, when he stumbled upon a bank glitch that briefly made him rich. He'd left the bar to get cash and discovered an ATM that was allowing him to withdraw way beyond his balance. And after a bit of trial and error the 29-year-old realised he’d found a loophole, and ran with it.
In a bender that lasted some five months, Dan managed to spend around $1.6 million of the bank's money. He threw lavish parties, chartered private jets, and paid off his friends’ university fees, until—unsurprisingly—the police caught up with him.
We had a chat with Dan about his magic money tree: how it worked, how it felt to be an accidental millionaire, and what it's like going back to being a bartender for $22 an hour.
VICE: Hey Dan, tell me about how this went down. What was the first withdrawal that made you realise something was up?
Dan Saunders: Well I was on a night out, trying to get a balance on my account but it kept on giving the message “balance unavailable at this time.” So I transferred $200 from my credit account to my savings and it said “transaction cancelled” and spat the card out. I thought that was super odd, so I decided to try and get $200 out of my savings account just to see what would happen. It gave me the money so I went back to the bar and continued drinking.
After I left the bar I was walking home past the same ATM. I’d been thinking about how odd the whole thing was so I put the card in again and started playing around. I transferred another $200 and got the money out. Then $500, then $600, just to see what would happen. I think it was a combination of being tipsy and bored but I just pushed the envelope and tried again and again. It was like a magic trick.
Wait, so what was happening?
Well the next morning I figured I must have dreamed the whole thing. But lo and behold, the money was in the wallet next to me. So I rang up to get a balance on my savings account, which was now $2,000 in debt. 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. I could “create” the money by doing a transfer between 1 and 3 in the morning, which is when I realised ATMs go offline.
So you just had to always stay one day ahead?
That’s right. So 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.
So what was the first thing you spent money on?
First I gave the missus $1,000 or so for our joint account, then shouted a few rounds behind the bar. Being able to make your account balance move up into the millions by the stroke of a key was a very addictive thing; I felt like a caveman discovering fire.
Is partying like that as fun as everyone thinks?
Yes. If you have imagination and money, you’re able to help people live their wildest dreams. It’s a super addictive fun thing to do, especially when the money literally comes from “thin air.”
People who think you've got money, they treat you differently. If a guy realises you've got a lot of money, he’s suddenly going to pitch an idea to make even more money. And then with the opposite sex, it attracts people even more. For example, 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. 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.
And what about your friends? What did they think about this?
Some of my friends were like, “You shouldn't be doing this, I don't want any part of it,” but most of them didn’t say that. 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." And others were egging me on as well saying, "You can do this, you can do that.”
Did you tell your family?
I didn't tell my family. They would have been like “What are you doing? You're going to get yourself into trouble.” I told a lot of people that I was an investment banker or in real estate. I would have said heaps of different things because I was meeting a lot of people all the time and it was basically just a one liner really. No one really cared that much. They knew I had a lot of money; they didn't care where it came from.
It’s unbelievable the bank failed to notice for four-and-a-half months. Did you worry you were going to get caught?
Yeah, I even had dreams about it. One night I had a nightmare that the SWAT team was out the front of the hotel room I was staying in. I remember waking up in a pool of sweat, realising that it was just a dream and the hotel doorbell rang. I was like "That's it, I'm gone. They're coming to get me”—which would have actually been a relief—but it turned out to be the maid saying "Would you like some fresh towels?"
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. I was having anxiety attacks. When the phone rang I always answered it. I think there was a small part of me that wanted it to end but I was past the point of no return. My life had changed dramatically. The bank would just ask: “Did you just go here? Did you just go there?” and I’d say “Yeah, that’s me” and then they’d say “No worries just checking it’s you.” It was truly bizarre.
What compelled you to turn yourself in?
It wasn’t that long until I asked myself: Who are you? You pushed the envelope for a bit but ultimately who are you? What do you stand for? Are you Dan from Australia or you like this guy in the movies who's just going to disappear one day with the millions and then what's going to happen? I didn't want to leave my family without any trace or something like that.
I never contacted the police. I just 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 I heard nothing for two years. It was always in the back of my mind so I couldn’t really move on with my life I guess. I mean who takes money like that and then they don’t do anything?
So how did the police finally get involved?
I was seeing a psychiatrist as a result of the guilt and the anxiety. I felt like I needed to talk to someone about it. The first psychiatrist I saw said "I'm not qualified to do this" and I was like, “Mate you're the shrink, surely you're qualified.” But then I found a guy who was a bit more sensible. He didn't tell me what to do or anything like that, but he said that turning myself in would be important and it’d clear my conscience and make sure I could move on.
So in an effort to get things resolved I went to the Herald Sun and then several other media companies, including a video interview on a Current Affair. Basically it took three print stories and an appearance on national TV to be taken seriously.
If you hadn’t turned yourself in, what would have been your escape plan?
I would have moved to Spain, maybe to Majorca. I would have probably moved all the money not into other banks but into casinos, because there's a lot of casinos and they don't really talk if you deposit money with them. They don't really chat about their clients and how much money they've got.
Do you feel like you ripped anyone off while doing this?
I didn’t think the money actually existed until I’d bought something with it or transferred it somewhere. Up until that point it was literally just numbers on a screen. I knew that no one thought it was missing, so my thinking was that it never existed in the first place. The rationale was that I wasn't taking anyone’s money.
How did the court case play out?
I thought I was going to get totally reamed, 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. I pleaded guilty, got one year inside, then I was allowed out on an 18-month community corrections order.
What has it been like going back to working in a bar earning $22 an hour, after being a millionaire?
I learned that faced with temptation it's easy to lose your true self, but I'm slowly getting back to neutral. 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. There was definitely a hangover time when I thought jeez, maybe I should have gone to Spain after all.
This is a small extract from our latest episode of Extremes: a VICE podcast exclusive to Spotify. You can listen to the full story here