Management & Operations

Are Passengers Taking You For a Ride?

Posted on June 1, 2002 by Janna Starcic, assistant editor

Fare evasion and fraud are not problems transit systems want to admit having, but they do exist on varying levels, whether it be fare beaters leaping over turnstiles or the infiltration of counterfeit fare media. In order to combat this revenue-leaching crime, transit agencies are redirecting transit police to problem areas, imposing heavy fines and using the latest security features available in fare media. Here are some solutions transit agencies have to help win the battle against fraud. What's the problem? You can't fix the leaks in the system until you find the holes. Determining where the fraud problems lie within a transit system by conducting surveys and analyzing data are key. With the assistance of an outside firm, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA), a barrier-free system, conducted an eight-week statistical survey in January on its light rail and subway lines to establish at what levels fare evasion exists. The perception that a high rate of evasion occurs at the LACMTA due to a lack of turnstiles was the impetus behind the survey. Survey teams, accompanied by plainclothes Los Angeles Police Department officers or L.A. County Sheriffs, were dispatched to station platforms every day between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. to check passenger tickets and passes. If passengers were unable to present valid fare media, the survey teams then interviewed them to find out reasons for their fare evasion, says Jim Cudlip, LACMTA's director of revenue. "We got the gamut of responses -- the ticket vending machine wasn't working, they didn't know the system, or they were just in a hurry and took a chance they wouldn't get caught," he says. Incidents of fare evasion were then tracked based on time of day and location. Based on survey information, the LACMTA ascertained a 5% evasion rate for the overall rail system. Tri-Met in Portland, Ore., follows a similar philosophy of establishing evasion rates and pinpointing problem areas by doing comprehensive studies every one to two years, says Tim Garling, manager of field operations for Tri-Met. "Based on 2001 data, Tri-Met has a 4.3% evasion rate on its bus system and 9.5% for light rail, an overall system average of 5.9%," he says. Tri-Met also tracks fare evasion on its buses daily with use of its bus dispatch system. The system, used primarily for tracking on-time performance of buses, allows operators to record incidences of fare evasion, which are then transmitted to the dispatch center. "This allows us to run reports of the accumulated information and find areas of increase or, from our view, unacceptable levels of evasion," says Garling. Man your stations Stepping up the use of manpower as an evasion deterrent is a solution used frequently by transit systems. "We try to hit the area with specific missions or sweeps to increase compliance by putting more fare inspectors and transit police on those lines," Garling says. For the LACMTA, officers, adjusting their schedules to cover specific times and stations, are dispatched to check tickets of passengers waiting on platforms and also of passengers onboard the trains once they arrive to the station. "We basically sat down with our law enforcement and showed them the areas we needed to target," says LACMTA's Cudlip. "It isn't necessarily having a larger [police] presence but simply redirecting the presence that we have toward the times and areas that were more problematic." Maryland's Mass Transit Administration (MTA) also uses police presence as a deterrent. Since 1997, MTA police officers ride every train. Although the initial deployment of officers was to quell community fears about possible crime resulting from the rail line expansion, the police presence has kept evasion rates to a minimum. "It's always been very low," says Maryland MTA spokesman Frank Fulton, "But [police presence] may have helped maintain it." Beyond standard fare evaders that try to slip onto a transit vehicle unnoticed, there are those that bypass the system with more drama. Those include fare-jumpers leaping over turnstiles or "piggy-backing," where one person walks close to a person using a farecard so they can sneak in behind them without a pass, explains Detective Sergeant Robert Melan of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). WMATA uses undercover police in addition to uniformed police officers to cover different vantage points within the system. "We'll work a lot on complaints. The station managers are our eyes and ears," says Melan. Fare media fraud, abuse If left undetected, fraud involving fare media, such as counterfeits, abuse of transfers and invalidated tickets, can result in a steady loss of revenue. "We received somewhere between $35,000 to $50,000 more a week in revenue once we eliminated invalidated script and instituted a day pass," says Dallas Area Regional Transit (DART) Treasurer Nate Hallett. "People were using transfers for days on end, so we instituted a day pass, which is twice the price but gives unlimited use of the system all day." "Control of all fare media, including transfers, is very important," says John Swanson, director of revenue system services for LTK Engineering Services. Making sure transfers are sequentially numbered and that bus operators keep them secured are ways to prevent loss. "If somebody takes that transfer or counterfeits it, or gives it to somebody else, that's money out of the agency's pocket," Swanson says. The accountability and financial controls of fare media like transfers are often inadequate, says Joe Simonetti, director of transportation market development for Metavante Corp., currently responsible for MetroCard fulfillment at the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. "Agencies across the nation are looking at automated systems to provide better accountability, and one of the issues it will address is reducing fraud," he says. Automation of the fare collection process can be key to an agency's ability to control fare media fraud and abuse. Controlling the abuse of transfers and passes as well as other counterfeit fare media can be enhanced by the use of automated equipment. "Relying on the operator to verify the validity of fare media is a difficult task," says Kim Green, vice president of GFI Genfare. "Fare collection suppliers now have an arsenal of products available to transit agencies to help them insure that only valid fare media is being properly used by their passengers." Equipment that automatically reads and validates magnetic stripe transfers and passes is one proven form of modern fare media control. The latest technology uses electronic chip cards (or smart cards) as automated fare media that offer even higher levels of security and passenger convenience than magnetic swipe cards. "It's all about controlling the fare media and passenger behavior. But, most important, the agency must make it increasingly more difficult for those who want to cheat to get away with it," says Green. Control enhancements, in the form of fare gates, may reduce evasion ever further. "You have to identify what the fundamental issues are. Do you have fare beaters showing fraudulent fare media or getting around existing controls? Then you need to think about enhancing controls," says Dick Trenery, a vice president with Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. "The British rail system did some pilot tests involving fare gates and saw a dramatic increase in its revenue stream." Counterfeiting -- real or fake? Some agencies don't wait around for counterfeit media to fall in their lap to find out they have a problem -- they seek out the fakes. Twice a month, the LACMTA dispatches a team that includes transit officers to conduct a controlled pass exchange of fare media in circulation. "We literally take hundreds of passes, of all different types, and we ask passengers to show us their fare media and exchange it for one of ours," Cudlip says. The collected media are analyzed thoroughly and, if forgery is discovered, checked for how authentic it looks. When officers come across a counterfeit, they must confiscate it and question the bearer. "The officers are mostly interested in tracing it back to who is printing them," he says. Anti-counterfeiting features such as foils, holograms and embossing are fairly low-cost techniques to add security to fare media, says LTK's Swanson. Training bus operators how to identify a fake is also key. Some transit systems create sample pocket cards with pictures of fare media to help with the process. Other systems include a brief discussion on fare collection issues during their safety meetings. Although not a preventive measure, lowering monetary limits on plastic media can reduce the monetary loss from counterfeiting. "If you let somebody load up a card with a $100 value and the card is counterfeited, you've created a $100 problem," says Fred Silverman, president and CEO of Thales e-Transactions. A majority of fraud may also be eliminated if cards are non-reloadable, says Brian Doyle, CEO of Coincard International Inc. Coincard's offerings include a stored value card that features a thin layer of metal, laser-etched with a serial number, private key and digital signature, sandwiched between two layers of polyester. High crimes, high fines One deterrent of fare evasion that is both effective and easily implemented, yet may be not so obvious, is the price passengers have to pay for taking you for a ride -- a fine. "If you are traveling in Germany on the Deutsch Ban (German National Railway), it's a proof-of-payment system with a random inspection, and if you don't have a ticket when the inspector comes through it is a very severe penalty -- hundreds of dollars," says LTK's Swanson. Companies in the United States have installed proof-of-payment systems on a limited scale, mostly on light rail systems, but the enforcement and penalties have not been as great, Swanson says. "People are going to think twice about not spending the money for the fare if they have this huge fine sitting over their heads." The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) instituted a new system, called PassChek, on its rail system, where conductors physically check passes to authenticate them. The new procedure is part of a campaign launched in May reminding that passengers attempting to defraud the system will be prosecuted. "PassChek was just a tool to keep the number [of fare evasions] as low as possible," says SEPTA's Revenue Manager John McGee. Earlier this year, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) stepped up a campaign of its own by reemphasizing a no-tolerance policy for fare evaders. "We thought the way to reduce crime on the system was to address the disorder problems we had," says Chief John Joyce. Several months ago GCRTA issued a bulletin requesting operators to notify transit police of fare evasion hot spots. "During the first quarter we made around 86 arrests for fare evasion. That's more than we made all last year," Joyce says.

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