>"Token Suckers", "Strip Cutters", and "Turnstile Jumpers" — Defrauding a transit system

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New York Subway recently announced a fare hike for their unlimited monthly pass, after debating whether to limit the pass to only 90 rides in a month. What’s behind this move? Are there really transit users that ride too much transit? Should Metro consider such a move?

No, there aren’t people riding so much that MTA wants to crack down on them. Instead, there’s a particular type of transit system fraud that is driving this change. According to a source familiar with MTA, 95% of passes are used less than the limit, but some transit passes are used almost 400 times per month to commit a fraud known as “selling swipes”. The fraudster obtains a series of transit passes and offers customers to let them through the faregate for only $1, which is a bargain compared to regular fare. Because each pass can only be swiped about 3 times per hour, you need to have a stack of passes to pull this off. Some people are able to collect about $900 per day using this scam, and the transit agency loses money.

Is Metro vulnerable to this kind of scam? Not really. Unlike the NYC subway, Metro faregates are supervised, and you need a farecard at the entrance and exit, so this wouldn’t work.

What are some other scams people use to get free rides or money from transit systems or their riders? Here are some of the more interesting ones:

The “strip split” is where someone buys a Metrorail farecard, cuts out the magnetic strip and splits it lengthwise up to four times. Then the pieces are glued to a regular demagnitized farecard and turned in. The crook adds a nickel or so to the farecard clone, and out pops a new genuine farecard worth the full amount. The new cards are then sold on the black market. Metro cracked down on this farecard fraud by limiting the value of a farecard turn-in, and by reemphasizing that you shouldn’t buy farecards on the black market.  They also reduced the width of the strip on the card so they can’t be split like this.

There’s always simpler frauds, like counterfeit transit tokens. A man was recently arrested for smuggling in counterfeit tokens for use on the Toronto transit system. For years, the Connecticut Turnpike and NYC Subway used similar enough tokens, causing many to import tokens from the turnpike to the subway.

People who receive the transit subsidy and don’t end up using it all can illegally sell their surplus subsidy on the black market. Metro and the Federal government periodically crack down on this practice, which has waned recently due to many people signing up for electronic transfer of their subsidy using SmartBenefits.

One of the stranger frauds I found was “token sucking“. The cheat would find a way to jam the turnstile slot, then wait for someone to try to deposit a token. Usually, the token would get caught and the customer would have to use another token in a different turnstile. Then, the sucker would use his mouth to suck the token out of the jammed slot for sale on the black market. Sometimes, station attendants would use grease or soap to make this practice less palatable, but frankly the thought of putting your mouth on anything related to the NYC subway was probably enough deterrent for most. Perhaps injecting pure capsaicin or a bitter agent into the slot would have been a better deterrent?

One of my favorites is a vulnerability of any transit system that has distance-based fares. You arrange with another person to meet them en-route and swap farecards. Then, you leave from their original faregate or close by. This is one of those frauds that I have only heard of in rumors, because I think it is too much of a pain to pull off for so little benefit. The only evidence I have is that BART has adjusted their fare structure to prevent it, by charging a very high amount for leaving from the same station you entered, and that WMATA mentioned it when replying to a question about leaving from the same faregate.

Sometimes, tourists in the NYC subway system will fall prey to a sleight of hand trick by someone pretending to “help” them with their farecard. The thief usually helps the tourist through a turnstile or cage and then swipes their card for them, and hands back a worthless card in exchange. It’s not until the next trip that the victim realizes they’ve been had.

Then there are the ones that simply involve using service you haven’t paid for. For transit systems using the proof of payment or “honor system”, you just ride without paying and hope you don’t get caught, or you can make a break for it when you see a fare checker coming. For stations with unattended turnstiles, you could just jump over or crawl under them. You can sneak in behind someone as the faregates are closing.

So what are your favorite transit system frauds? What’s the strangest, most creative thing you’ve seen people do to make a buck or save a buck at our expense?

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About perkinsms

I'm an engineer and father interested in transit, parking and economics.
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