UPDATE: Madison Metro Confiscates Hundreds of Black Market Bus Passes

By: Phil Levin Email
By: Phil Levin Email

UPDATED: Friday, February 8, 2013 --- 10:00 p.m.
Reporter: Phil Levin

A recent crackdown on the sale of unlimited bus passes to unauthorized users has yielded hundreds of confiscations.

Several local schools, the University, and three hospitals provide bus passes to their staff and students in Madison. The passes, issued for a semester or entire year, bill the business or school $1.15 each time they are swiped. For years, Madison Metro has noticed those that don't ride the bus often sell their pass online, charging the original account with each ride.

In November, Madison Metro began increasing its spontaneous ID checks, to make sure riders actually belong to the groups issuing their pass. In just three months, staff have confiscated about 300 passes.

"The drivers are well aware of the problem," said Madison Metro Customer Service Manager Mick Rusch. "They see people that ride the bus that shouldn't be using certain passes, for example a school pass that's used by an adult."

The scams are often perpetrated on sites like Craigslist, where passes are sold for a fraction of their potential value. University of Wisconsin faculty and students alone issue more than 40,000 passes per year and pay Metro more than $5 million for those rides. Associated Students of Madison, the group that issues passes to UW students, used to see replacements asked for consistently, and assumes many originals were sold to those outside the system.

"We would have kids coming in that were getting their first bus pass and coming in two or three days later because they lost it," said ASM Bus Pass Manager Corey Swinick. "That's kind of fishy having people come in a couple days later to get a replacement."

The group's supervisor, Margaret Bergamini, tracks online sales activity. She even found posts boasting years of misuse without getting caught.

Since the ID enforcement increase, Swinick says requests for replacement passes have dropped to just a handful. Madison Metro says drivers can avoid the checks when it would cause a slowdown, and their partners are thrilled with the initial results.

"We're going to continue this indefinitely because we've had a lot of success," said Rusch. "At some of the colleges it's pretty much stopped altogether."

By the end of the year Metro plans to order new fare boxes enabling smart passes in the form of stickers. These could attach to a rider's ID, making it nearly impossible to sell the pass on its own.

POSTED: November 9, 2012
Reporter: Phil Levin

Madison Metro bus drivers will begin checking school identification cards to avoid the spread of a bus pass black market.

The change begins Monday. Students or staff with unlimited passes provided by the University of Wisconsin or the Madison Metropolitan School District could get their passes confiscated if they fail to show proper ID.

The change comes after a surge of black market bus pass sales. Since just September, the school district has cancelled 820 bus passes. Although some may have been lost or broken, others showed signs of tampering ahead of resale.

Madison Metro Customer Service Manager Mick Rusch says some cards were turned in with their printed account numbers scratched off, in an apparent attempt to hide the user's identity if their resold card is confiscated. Rusch says the account information is also stored on the magnetic strip, so these users are easily caught.

Many of the black market bus passes are sold on Craigslist, some for as little as $35.

"I'm one of the few people that I know that use the bus," said UW-Madison Junior Lauren Conlin. "Most of my friends don't use the bus passes, I know a lot of people that haven't even picked their bus pass up."

The resale market actually costs students money. Associated Students of Madison uses a portion of tuition fees to fund the bus pass program, which costs about $3 million each year. Each time a student uses a bus pass, ASM is charged $1.15. If a non-student uses a pass, the cost is effectively spread amongst the current students.

Instead of a per-use fee, the school district pays $155 per pass. They have the ability to deactivate resold passes, but only if they are aware of the crime. This is why Rusch says they are encouraging the ID checking.

Students are already concerned the checking could lead to longer lines. Rusch says drivers will have the option to stop checking if it can delay their route. Drivers will also issue one-day passes to anyone whose unlimited pass is confiscated.

Madison Metro is also considering new bus pass technology. As early as next year, staff are considering replacing the paper passes with electronic stickers that could be placed on the back of school ID's, almost eliminating the possibility of a black market.

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