Microsoft has posted a patch for Money 2004 users, many of whom have been locked out of their financial data for a week even though it was stored on local hard disks.

Affected users can now use a Money Key Wizard on the MSN Money site. Users issued a collective sigh of relief after nearly a week of being unable to access their financial information.

"It was a very easy fix from the users point of view. All we had to do was click a link on a Web page to a 'Money Key Wizard', the next screen we got was telling us that we could now log on to our files and see all our information," said Kenneth T. Van Wie II, a computer consultant.

Microsoft caused the problem by making changes to a server or servers on Sunday 25 July. That caused a disconnect between Microsoft's Passport authentication technology and Money's file encryption keys. Microsoft insists the glitch is not in Passport, which continued to work for other services such as Hotmail.

Money 2004 users who use any of the program's online options, such as bill pay and e-banking, got an error message if they tried to log into their accounts. The message said their sign-in names were incorrect or not recognised. Subsequently, they were locked out of their data for the rest of the week.

There was never any question that Microsoft was serious about fixing the problem as quickly as possible, notes Rob Enderle, principal analyst at technology consulting firm The Enderle Group. But Microsoft's poor handling of the situation initially created a small public relations nightmare. The company did not immediately publicly notify customers of the situation and then tried to put a spin on it by pointing out the "good news" that nobody - including customers - could break into the financial data.

"When you’ve got millions of people using your financial program, it only takes a few to create a bad impression of the product," Enderle says.