Home MetroCard Eliminating MetroCards, eliminating scams

Eliminating MetroCards, eliminating scams

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA is moving ahead this year with plans to phase out the MetroCard system. While London, as I wrote late last week, will have its bank card-based system in place by 2012, the MTA’s own process will likely be slower. The authority will soon issue an RFP and will eventually make way for a new system. The MetroCard is on the way out, but it’s going to be a slow death.

When the MetroCard goes, the MTA will begin to save on fare collection costs. By eliminating the proprietary infrastructure behind the MetroCard, the MTA can cut down significantly on the amount of money it spends to collect fares, and thus its revenue from fares will increase. That’s, at least, the intended consequence. One of the other consequence — call it a semi-unintended consequence — concerns MetroCard scams.

Nearly since the beginning, scams have plagued the MetroCard system. In January of 1998, the Daily News marked the end of the first scam when cops and MTA officials busted a ring of scammers who were mutilating MetroCards to game the system.

Over the next few years, MetroCard scams became a low-level annoyance for the MTA. The authority took some heat from politicians in 1999 when it didn’t know how much money it lost due to MetroCard scams. In 2000, a station agent was arrested for MetroCard fraud, and throughout the decade, cops and transit officials continued to vow to crackdown on scammers selling swipes.

Recently, scammers have gotten confrontational. Those selling swipes will harass costumers at stations missing their agents, and they’ll jam machines. In November, the MTA and NYPD started targeting stations from which they’ve received a high number of complaints. Sutphin Boulevard, which was highlighted by the Daily News, saw one scammer make $200 off of a 30-day unlimited card.

Yesterday, The Post again went inside MetroCard scammers. Here’s how the paper reported it:

Swipers, as the hustlers are called, commonly jam the bill slot in MetroCard machines to force riders to buy a “swipe” to get past the turnstile. They charge anywhere from $1 to $2. The fare is $2.50. They exploit flaws in discarded cards that allow someone to get through after repeatedly swiping it, or they charge people to go through a service gate, transit workers said.

At the Fordham Road D station in The Bronx yesterday, The Post found several busted MetroCard machines unable to accept bills — and swipers more than willing to help out. “I’ll let you in. Give me $2. Come on,” one man muttered.

Transit workers were quite hyperbolic about the gangs — allegedly organized — that hang around stations. “It’s like the Thunderdome in some stations,” one said. “I fear for the riding public. It’s dangerous,” another said.

Cops say they’ve been more vigilant about enforcement. After nabbing 74 scammers in December, police arrested 148 people in January. Yet that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. Reportedly, vandals broke machines at the Utica Ave. station 198 times in December and at the Nostrand Ave. station 228 times. Lower-income areas of the city appear particularly susceptible to scammers.

For now, the MTA and the NYPD will continue to work together to combat these scammers, but it’s going to require more than just a token effort to nip this problem in the bud. When the MetroCard is retired though, scammers won’t be able to jam fare machines and harass costumers. For those subjected to these scams on a daily basis, that is welcome news indeed.

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29 comments

Frank B. February 28, 2011 - 12:22 am

You know what? I was at 45th Street on the BMT 4th Avenue Line today, and I noticed that the machine would take cash, so the station agent had to take it. At the same time, a guy was offering me a discounted ride. I can’t believe I didn’t make the connection.

What a brilliant scam.

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pea-jay February 28, 2011 - 12:56 am

The future of MTA fare crime, like everything else will go high-tech. I can’t wait to hear the first story run circa 2016 how an overachieving 8th grader cracked the algorithm and now rides for free everywhere or a gang of high tech crooks somehow “sniffs out” the connection between your card and and the financial institution is linked with.

I’m not saying this to be critical or that it will even happen like I describe, it’s just human nature for (at least some) crooks to evolve with the technology. Personally, I look forward to the day when a simple touch is all that is required to board a bus. Sooo much faster!

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BG February 28, 2011 - 1:09 am

Recently, for the first time, I was accosted by multiple people on an A train approaching Howard Beach, and in the station, asking for leftover unlimited MetroCards that I’d no longer need as I was heading to the airport–presumably they were hoping to get handouts that could be put into service in these scams. The only curious thing is that hassling people on their way to the airport is (in my experience) a new part of the scam.

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Kris February 28, 2011 - 7:31 pm

They do the same thing at Port Authority as well. Even if you’re not running a scam, I imagine it could be pretty profitable since lots of travelers wouldn’t think twice about giving up a card they’re probably not going to use anymore.

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Alon Levy February 28, 2011 - 1:37 am

In terms of dollars saved per person-hour of effort spent, what’s the comparative benefit of worrying about MetroCard scams versus worrying about Skanska scams?

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Aaron February 28, 2011 - 2:44 am

I was wondering that too. Every organization operates with some small percentage of its revenue lost to theft, fraud, errors, leprechauns, etc. There’s usually a tolerance level but those tolerance levels are rarely paired in the reporting when talking about MTA scams. There’s no scandal to be found unless the MTA’s losses far exceed said tolerances or its tolerance levels are out-of-whack.

By the way, Ben, why will this new fare system make the MTA immune to scams, anyhow? Won’t the scams just look different?

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John February 28, 2011 - 9:31 am

I think there’s some hyperbole there. It won’t make them immune, but it should make them more difficult to pull off.

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Joe Steindam February 28, 2011 - 12:14 pm

I think the logic goes that if the next generation payment system is through a bank card (like the trials have been), there will be no transactions going on in the station that could be disrupted by a scam artist. Since you’ve got the money on your bank card and the system deducts from your card, there’s no need for any 3rd party, the MTA or a person offering you a swipe.

I hope the next payment system doesn’t totally rely on bank cards, there should always be some payment system that the MTA operates, like TfL’s Oyster Card (for people who don’t have bank cards or prefer not to use them to board the train).

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Tsuyoshi February 28, 2011 - 4:18 pm

But there is still going to be a monthly unlimited deal, no? If it’s some sort of status you attach to a bank card, then all you need to do is steal some cards (or maybe just buy some prepaid cards), get the monthly unlimited, and start charging people to use your stolen cards.

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Alon Levy February 28, 2011 - 4:59 pm

This.

Joe Steindam February 28, 2011 - 7:35 pm

We don’t really know what sort of fare systems MTA will offer when it switches to a contactless card system. I would assume there would still be an unlimited deal, but I don’t know.

But to your point, sure there might still be people offering you a swipe at the turnstile, but since the contactless card system doesn’t rely on adding money to your card in the station (if your transit card is your bank card, then the money is added at your Bank), there isn’t the same opportunity for these guys to sabotage your ability to add money to your card. Without something like a Metrocard Vending Machine in the station, then the swipe-selling scheme loses it’s ability to force riders to buy the swipe.

Pete February 28, 2011 - 8:57 am

With all these MVMs saying No Bills at the closed booth areas especially in Manhattan how can the TA report last week at the Transit Committee in their Passenger Environment Survey Stations that they have 99% of MVMs working? Enron accounting?

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John February 28, 2011 - 9:26 am

Did they say 99% of MVMs completely working? If they accept credit cards one can argue they’re “working.”

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Pete February 28, 2011 - 9:42 am

I’m told by some people who work fixing MVMs that they can’t tell if the credit card readers are working. That there is no sensor to display credit reader error unless the communication line is out to the credit card reader. They also say that since they are so busy chasing after the swipers and some legitimate bill jams that no one in Manhattan is checking the credit card readers to make sure that they are working. I certainly see lots of people having trouble with the creit card reader in Manhattan. Again is it Enron accounting?

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John February 28, 2011 - 11:58 am

Well, if they can’t even tell (automatically) if the machines are working, how can they report ANY statistic on how many are working?

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Pete February 28, 2011 - 12:09 pm

They can tell when something is jammed in the bill acceptor and also when something is stuck in the card slot. They also can tell when the communication line is down for the credit card reader. That is why the status board on the MVM goes from green to yellow to tell customers when there is a known problem. They can also check from the district offfice computer any MVM but have to do this individually if there have been any credit card transactions at any MVM in the system. So if there is a problem with an important part of the MVM like bill acceptor jam it should be reported as a problem not 99% systemwide MVM availability. That is Enron accounting at it’s best.

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2011 - 12:14 pm

Over the span of 365 days, 99 percent of the time means that each machine is out of service for a total of over 3.5 days a year. Are you so sure that’s an outlandish figure? I know you think it’s Enron accounting; you’ve certainly driven that figure into the ground. But I rarely see an MVM out of service for more than a few hours, and even those incidents are few and far between.

Pete February 28, 2011 - 1:27 pm

The average response time to an MVM trouble call is approaching 8 hours. There are certainly lots of MVMs sitting there working fine day in and day out and there are others out longer than they are in and that is where the swipers are or lots of tourists and the response there should be more like 2 hours from 6am to 8pm and not 8 hours.

Alon Levy February 28, 2011 - 5:01 pm

I sometimes have trouble, but I always thought it was because my credit card was slightly bent. I sometimes need to swipe it multiple times at ATMs, too.

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Paulp February 28, 2011 - 9:44 am

This all ties into the closing of the token booths. Take away the human element and the place goes to the dogs. We warned about this months ago. BTW MTA cares nothing about this. They know millions of people will pay full fare and keep the system going. MTA plays the riding public for suckers and blames the workers. FIRE THE MTA!!!!

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VLM February 28, 2011 - 9:48 am

I see you failed to read Ben’s history lesson. If the scams picked up in response to the elimination of station agents, how do you explain the 2004 attempt at stopping the same thing? Or how about the station agents who were arrested in 2000? Station agents have never stopped this kind of behavior and many sat idly — or fell asleep — while this activity went on under their noses. My guess is that many of the station agents enjoyed a cut of the profits, and you’re only upset because a nice source of cash flow disappeared when the station agents did.

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Paulp February 28, 2011 - 10:36 am

An incredible statement: “My guess is that many of the station agents enjoyed a cut of the profits”
Clearly you are anti-worker. You have no proof of your claims.
Perhaps you should check the amount of calls made to the TPB over the last 10 ten years regarding swipers. That is my proof. You have none.
Scamming in the subway is nothing new regardless of the fare media used.
Swipers and the like are at an all-time high right now and one of the reasons is that when the booths were closed, the people who alerted police to their presence are gone.
To think otherwise is ignoring the facts.

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Eric F. February 28, 2011 - 1:27 pm

I just never understood — pre-Metrocard years here — how I could walk into any video arcade place in the country (this is back when there were video arcades), insert a dollar into a machine and get four quarters, but could not go into a subway station, stick a bill into a machine and get a token. This is before I learned about unions.

I rode the trains during the 80s, there were plenty of station agents, and the system was as scary as can be.

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Open payment for New York: fraud prevention? | Raschke on Transport February 28, 2011 - 2:14 pm

[…] at Second Avenue Sagas, there’s a new post claiming that the MTA’s effort to replace the MetroCard with an open payment system will […]

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BBnet3000 February 28, 2011 - 2:23 pm

RFID machines will break or be broken a lot less often than the swipers.

Additionally, with a card that you have permanently, a lot of people will be recharging these online (or having it charged each month/amount automatically), putting less of a burden on the station machines.

Moving to a modern card system cant come any sooner.

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proudfoot February 28, 2011 - 3:39 pm

What about people who don’t have credit cards to refill their RFP cards; how are they going to ride the subway? Is MTA eliminating the MetroCard kiosk or will they just switch over to a non-cash system and everyone will have to use a credit card to refill their RFP cards?

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Joe Steindam February 28, 2011 - 7:46 pm

The MTA’s pilot project’s haven’t addressed this yet. So far, the systems have been totally reliant on bank cards and credit cards for paying for fares. But there’s no way you could only have fare payment through credit cards, so many riders don’t have access to credit cards (school students for one).

I’m assuming that when the MTA is ready to switch over to a contactless fare system, they will issue a card that more closely resembles a credit card (like the Oyster Card used by Transport for London) which can be used and refilled like a Metrocard is now (and it probably won’t expire, because the RFID technology lasts longer than the magnetic strips).

As BBnet mentioned, these will probably be able to be reloaded over the internet, but there will need to be machines or vendors where people can get the cards in the first place, and reload them when they run out of money. Obviously, these machines might end up being as vulnerable to vandalism as the current vending machines, leaving people still vulnerable to buy a swipe off the scam artists.

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Kris February 28, 2011 - 7:35 pm

I once called the MTA (first through 311) to notify them that all of the machines at the WTC A/C/E station were broken and there was a guy selling swipes; it took 11 minutes to report the problem and no mention was ever made of dealing with the crook. Sigh.

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PW March 1, 2011 - 12:35 pm

Used to crack me up back in the day to see one of these fools jam the token slot and then try to suck the token out after someone tried to use it. They will always try to find a way to scam the system.

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