To fight Metrocard fraud, a longer swipe delay


For as long as I can remember, the key time for a Metrocard has always involved 18 minutes. The cards, the MTA has long said, cannot be used on the same bus route or at the same subway station for 18 minutes. It’s a delay long enough to frustrate the average straphanging family looking to take advantage of an unlimited ride card, but it hasn’t stymied scammers.

Those who sell swipes have long been a thorn in the MTA’s side. We’ve all seen the folks who stand in station agent-less entrances offering to sell swipes for less than the cost of a ride. Some of them are more menacing than others, and some will go so far to jam up Metrocard Vending Machines to make sure their scams are the only ways into the subway system. I’ve seen them at some of the more desolate entrances to the Columbus Circle station, and they are positioned all over.

For years, the MTA has tried to cut down on these scammers. Summonses are ineffective, and arrests are just temporary setbacks. With only an 18-minute gap between swipes, these scammers can buy multiple Metrocards and simply swipe through the pack until the time is up. Now, the MTA is upping the fight against scammers in an effort to capture more money. As Pete Donohue noted in The Daily News, the authority has quietly upped the swipe time at a few stations and is generally being more aggressive in combating those who are using the same card multiple times at one station.

Donohue writes:

In the test program, the MTA targeted 28 stations where MetroCard records indicate high rates of fraud. Turnstiles were tweaked to reject a time-based card that had been used in the same station in the previous 36, 48 or 60 minutes. For decades, the lockout time has been 18 minutes, but that’s easily skirted by rotating through a series of cards.

The MTA’s theory: increase the lockout time and a scammer needs more MetroCards to make the investment in time or money worth it. “We know the police are out there doing everything they can to address this problem,” MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said. “We think we can do some things internally to make this kind of fraud less financially attractive.”

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign has some concerns about the plan. “It’s OK to make things harder for illegal swipers with longer blackout periods,” he said. “But transit officials have got to balance that against the mobility of the rest of us, such as when we’ve forgotten something at the office and have to reenter a station. We are New Yorkers and we are always in a hurry.”

As a frequent swiper, I am having a tough time finding too much fault with his idea. While Russianoff is right to raise a concern, do legitimate subway riders swipe in more than once in an hour at the same station? The only time I could imagine doing so is if I swipe in, realize I’ve forgotten something and then have to return home to pick it up. Even then, I could still journey a few extra blocks to enter at a different station.

The MTA has often proclaimed loses due to Metrocard scams in excess of $20 million. That’s enough to save some bus routes or avoid a future service cut. While no business can reduce its bleed rate to nothing, a 60-minute time limit at the same station seems perfectly reasonable to me as the familiar yellow-and-blue fare payment system lives out its last years. Once the Metrocard vanishes, I wonder what future scams will resemble.

Categories : MetroCard

43 Responses to “To fight Metrocard fraud, a longer swipe delay”

  1. Dan says:

    Also, if you legitimately do need to leave and re-enter a station in a short timespan, a station agent can always help. It’s happened to me before, whether through faulty swipes (where the machine says “just used” after like four read errors) or genuinely needing to get in and out (like to answer an important call). I’m not saying to abuse that, just that people who are legitimately using their metrocards likely won’t be too hurt by this.
    What’s funny is that I’ve never encountered these shady types, even though I use stations like Columbus Circle all the time, and through the less common entrances too.

    • TP says:

      I’ve asked a station agent for help with this before (accidentally swiped into the wrong side on the L) and was told “No, you have to wait 18 minutes.” Sounds like your mileage may vary.

      • Sam Huff says:

        Yes, happened to me on the bus, I made a run uptown and could not get on the downtown bus for the period. Just a little errand made more difficult for the MTA. They should allow you to travel in the opposite direction on the same line.

        And I have had the lock out several times after multiple swipes, not getting in and then seeing card just used.

  2. Gabe says:

    “The only time I could imagine doing so is if I swipe in, realize I’ve forgotten something and then have to return home to pick it up. Even then, I could still journey a few extra blocks to enter at a different station.”

    This assumes 1) there are multiple stations near you, and 2) you’ll remember that you’re blocked out from the first station. The nice thing about the 18 minute delay is it’s almost something people don’t have to worry about. I have entered and exited stations before (such as when I thought a friend was inside but was actually outside, and the other two examples of needing to make a call or left something at home); an hour wait could force me to take a taxi if it’s the only station within half a mile and don’t have the time to walk.

    At the same time, if they’re right that this can stem some of the $200 million in fraud losses, I can see why the MTA would push for it. But, as Dan said, I have never seen people trying to exploit unlimited cards and am concerned increasing the time delay will have minimal impact on the loss.

    • ajedrez says:

      Most subway lines do have a duplicate bus line, so in a lot of cases, you could probably take the bus to the next station.

  3. Ron Aryel says:

    I have personally met a few of these scammers – in NYC, and in Atlanta. If they are scamming rides, they are also likely doing other things I don’t want. That’s why I always call the police and have them arrested. Yes, it’s temporary, but every time one is arrested, the police run them through the crime computer. If there are other open warrants, they go away for a lot longer than just for scamming Metrocards. A recent murder prosecution started with a trespassing arrest in a subway station.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    So, in addition to the cost of maintaining turnstiles and having station agents, the MTA has to deal with the cost of fraud.

    Have they even tried to do an inventory of the cost of their current system, the equivalent of the fare evasion rate that’s published on POP systems?

    • SEAN says:

      I bet the answer is no.

      I totally understand the fighting fraud arguement, but the MTA needs to ballence the needs of the riders as well.

      • Here’s my challenge: What is the regular scenario where a rider would have to swipe in at the same station twice is one hour?

        • Bolwerk says:

          I had it happen ONCE. I was moving some heavy suitcases from around Chambers to my apartment near Fulton Street. I think it was all done in well under an hour.

          Regardless, 18m seems ridiculously short.

        • al says:

          There are delivery men who use the subways and buses in Midtown. Usually they’re carrying tube or boxes of documents or bags/platters of food. I can see time making multiple trips per hr during the morning or around lunch.

        • Andrew says:

          1. Forgot something at home.

          2. Mistakenly entered on the wrong side of the street.

          3. Mis-swipe.

          4. Left the station to make a phone call or grab a coffee during a delay in service.

          5. Meeting point confusion.

          6. Trip chaining by bus.

          7. Boarded a bus only to find that it was smelly or the a/c was broken or there were no seats; got off to wait for the next one.

          8. Boarded a bus that wasn’t running the full length of the route; attempted to transfer to the next bus with your MetroCard.

          Even 18 minutes is an occasional hardship. An hour is ridiculous.

          The solution is to start the lockout at 18 minutes, or perhaps even less, and increase it exponentially. After your first swipe, you have to wait 18 minutes. After your second, you have to wait 36. After your third, 72.

          • Alon Levy says:

            #2 happened to me a few times when I’d just moved into the city. I did not realize that some stations had separate entrances for each direction.

          • nyland8 says:

            I like the idea of doubling it – or multiples of 12, as in … 24 … 36 … 48 … 60

            I don’t know if any number is “scam proof” – but it can certainly serve to further discourage the abuse.

          • Anon256 says:

            #6, #7 and #8 won’t lead to you swiping again in /at the same station/, which is where the limit applies. I don’t think there is such a limit on buses (except SBS where it wouldn’t matter as you’d just keep the receipt).

            I presume by #3 you mean when the turnstile incorrectly marks your card as “just used” without letting you through? That’s happened to me once or twice.

            I like the doubling idea.

            • Andrew says:

              The 18 minute lockout (or proposed one-hour lockout) also applies on each bus route. If you swipe your unlimited on the M23, it won’t work on any M23 (in the same direction, at least – I’m not sure what happens if you reverse direction) for 18 minutes.

              • BoerumBum says:

                That’s interesting, as the bus driver could presumably catch and prevent this type of scam. If lockout time increases are the way to go to beat this, I wonder if completely removing the lockout from busses could be examined.

                • ajedrez says:

                  I thought they said it would apply at SELECT subway stations and none of the bus routes.

                  • Andrew says:

                    You confused me for a minute – I know what a Select bus is, and I almost asked you what a Select subway is.

                    But getting back to your point, surely the terms of an unlimited MetroCard are enshrined in a fare tariff. If the fare tariff specifies an 18 minute lockout, then implementing a 60 minute lockout at an unidentified set of stations is clearly in violation.

                    Or to put it another way, will the random rider know that, if he finds out about a service delay after entering and steps outside to call his boss, he won’t be able to reenter for a full hour (without paying a fare)?

        • izzy bin laden horowitzberg says:

          Messengers traveling back and forth in the system have to go through the same stations frequently.If you have an unlimited card than you should not be burdened by more than 18 minutes a between swipes.If you left the office swiped on and forgot something in the office does that not happen to millions each year?The people selling swipes have never been nasty and rude to me.Conversely the towel headed vermin and Rastafarians in the “token booths” are universally rude and unhelpful(basically getting a check for doing nothing).The mta will never stop people from selling swipes ,but once again they have inconvenienced only law abiding strap hangers.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I’m pretty pro-POP, as you probably noticed, but I can actually see where keeping the turnstiles makes sense for Subways. The infrastructure is already there, and checking fares in that environment can be disruptive and could cause needless crowding/bottlenecking. However, dispensing with station agents seems like a no-brainer. Video surveillance is sufficient to watch entrances/exits, and customer service can be remote.

      We should be POPing the buses and any future LRT services.

      • Alon Levy says:

        For the record, I think that turnstiles on the subway are justified, precisely because of the large volumes. However, I don’t know this for a fact, and the more effort the MTA spends on fighting swipe fraud, the less cost-effective the turnstiles are.

        • Bolwerk says:

          The more I think about this, but more I get the impression fighting fraud and beating is more about dispensing punishment, the bastard child of the broken windows mentality – and not at all, even in a half-assed way, about keeping costs down. They don’t care about how much it costs to do all kinds of things.

          It also meshes well with the Ray Kelly attitude toward crime, where police are ever escalating their belligerence in order to stop ever-fewer crimes just to get statistics a little lower. Again, the costs be damned.

          • Anon256 says:

            In fairness, scammers don’t just represent lost revenue, they also annoy customers and often find ways to render the metrocard vending machines out of order.

  5. Pat L says:

    When I first moved to New York, there were a few times when I would swipe into the wrong platform at a station with no mezzanine, and then needed to walk to a different station. Even the 18-minute delay is hard to wait through in that situation. I can understand the need for a longer delay, but it would be better if separate platforms counted as separate stations.

    • marvin says:

      No! that would make it too easy for scammers to just shift between entrences/platforms. In a real pinch station managers have discretion to allow someone through.

      A real kindness was done for my family this past winter. My niece from out of town was taking the subway for her first time ever with two young children. our greatest fear was her getting down to the platform and on to a train without the children winding up on the tracks. I stood at the turnstile asking people going in to help her as I had just taken her to the station but was not going into manhattan with her. The “token clerk” clearly saw that i had no intention or desire to take a train and on the loud speaker told me to go through the gate and get her on to the train. It helped my niece greatly and enhanced the safety of the subway for all that day. Immediately after getting my niece and children on the train, i went back to the token clerk to thank her and show her that her instincts were right on the mark.

      • George says:

        “our greatest fear was her getting down to the platform and on to a train without the children winding up on the tracks”

        Huh? Is this a huge risk for every family visiting the subway for the first time? Or is your niece in a ‘special’ situation?

        • marvin says:

          2 children under age 4 with a stroller is a hardship for anyone. Over time you learn how to put yourself between the platform and the tracks. The first time is hard.

  6. Yo says:

    This is terrible. At least once a month I’ll try and swipe into a station and after 3-4 errors, it’ll say “just used” and then I’ll have to buy a $2.25 one use card or wait 18 minutes. If they raise the wait time even higher, it just creates more situations where I’ll have to buy another Metrocard despite paying for “unlimited use.”

    • BoerumBum says:

      It’s not that bad… I keep a backup Pay-Per-Ride card in my wallet that I think of as my FML Card. I use it for those occasions, or if my monthly expires and I’m already late for work, or if I have a friend from out of town visiting and they’re baffled by the MetroCard machine. Max FML Card usage is under $10 a year. I can easily defer the cost of that by actually returning cans & bottles for the deposit, versus just putting them at the curb.

      I know we all love to complain about every minor inconvenience, but this is a REALLY minor inconvenience for law-abiding riders.

      • Nyland8 says:

        It’s not an inconvenience. It’s an unjustified expense. It’s a ripoff.

      • Alon Levy says:

        The way you describe it, it’s a fare hike.

        • BoerumBum says:

          Yup, and at 2 cents a day, a pretty painful fare hike. I’ll need to cut back on my wishing well habit.

          • Alon Levy says:

            It’s not 2 cents a day; it’s a probability of $2.25 a day, which makes it more painful for the user, in the same way unpredictable schedules make users less likely to ride the bus.

            • BoerumBum says:

              Hence my original point, that I keep a pay-as-you-go card as a backup. It’s like having insurence. In my experience, this type of occurence happens just a couple times a year, max. Hence, 2 cents a day.

  7. Bolwerk says:

    The MTA has often proclaimed loses due to Metrocard scams in excess of $20 million. That’s enough to save some bus routes or avoid a future service cut.

    Per year? That’s almost nothing, on what must amount to about $12M/day in fare revenue. People who are having conniptions about that are being ludicrous. The revenue could be entirely recovered by determining the total amount of lost revenue ($20M?) ÷ number of evaders who are actually caught to set the right fine. With some upward adjustments to that fine for court/processing costs, collection costs, and loses in the cases where you are just attempting to extract blood from a stone, it should be trivial to recover all that money, and probably even make a little profit off the evasion.

    • John says:

      True, it’s low enough where they shouldn’t spend a bunch of money on it. But just changing the swipe time is essentially free, so I’m all for adjusting that a bit to make fraud more difficult. 18 minutes always seemed arbitrary and too short for what it was intended for. It’s too long for legitimate people to wait, and it’s too short to really deter people from selling swipes. I think they could easily double it and not have many issues.

  8. Ed says:

    I’ve actually been inconvenienced by this, for example entering the station to go home and realizing I left something in my office, or going to the uptown station when I should have gone to the downtown one across the street, for example. The thing is, the station agents the first few times were less than forthcoming about explaining the whole eighteen minutes thing. Once I figured it out, I started taking care not to wind up in situations where I would be inconvenienced by the wait. I suspect that the people who believe they are not inconvenienced have unconsciously adjusted their subway using behavior so that they are not inconvenienced.

    If someone had asked me how to deal with the swipe scanner problem, I probably would have recommended something on the lines of cameras by the turnstyles combined with random checks by the police (or have the station agents watch out for this behaviour!) It honestly wouldn’t have occurred to me to deactivate the cards as soon as they are swiped for a set period of time. And if I had gone the deactivate the card route, then it would have been combined with features such as the card is deactivated at the station it was just swiped only,so you could cross the street and go from the downtown to the uptown station. And if its too difficult to do that, maybe put a sign up explaining the policy for the benefit of tourists?

  9. Nyland8 says:

    Indeed, it seems absurd to me to be penalizing the law-abiding because of those who would scam the system. I’ve been on the platform before when announcements were made about long delays. I’ve left the cold station to get a hot cup of coffee, and returned too quickly for my card to readmit me. Not wanting to miss the next train, I needlessly bought another fare. The delay turned out to be quite long.

  10. Michael says:

    Even then, I could still journey a few extra blocks to enter at a different station.

    Spoken like a Manhattanite. Where I live in deep queens, the stations are very far away from each other. Its a real pain in the ass when I forget something. I usually end up buying a single ride.

  11. Bill says:

    The problem is that although most of the agents in the booths are nice, there are a few that are complete assholes.

    One time I swiped in and just missed the train. I left, bought a drink, and went back into the station. Not only did the agent in the booth not let me in, he was a complete asshole to me.

    A couple of other times something like this happened, the agents in the booth were polite and helpful.

    If the MTA is going to increase the length of time it is important that they fire that bad employees and only keep people in the booths that are polite and helpful. They should tape record the booths to find out which employees are the assholes and get rid of them.

  12. SRT says:

    First time tourist family of 5 (cabs accept 4 max)…stranded away from Parking at wall street and forced to take subway from 42 and Times Square…. no guidance from person in booth…. info by a passenger to put $30 on metro card. After 4 swipes it said no balance ??? Helped by a kind hearted fellow passenger.
    A mixed experience…. good/ bad coexist and you need to experience both to know the difference.

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