Scammers prey on BART's Clipper glitch 

Fraud involving Clipper cards has skyrocketed after reports exposed a loophole in BART’s fare payment system in November, resulting in more than $170,000 in lost revenue.

Under the current system, BART passengers who use a Clipper card can pay as little as $2 to travel anywhere in the transit network. But almost any trip on a $2 ticket results in a so-called negative balance. For instance, traveling from downtown San Francisco to San Francisco International Airport costs $8.10.

This payment scheme was based on the idea that Clipper users would repay the deficit the next time they filled up the reusable cards with cash. However, simply running up a negative balance and then throwing away the card means the Clipper user never has to pay back the debt.

“This is a not a good thing,” said spokesman John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “The trend is not flat-lining like we hoped.”

At first, BART passengers appeared to be reloading their cards regularly after going negative. In September, one month after the regional transit-payment card was introduced to BART, only 5 percent of all negative balances were the result of a one-ride trip.

But in November, after various media reports on BART’s fare glitch, the number of one-trip deficits increased to 77 percent. And in December, that total rose again, to 87 percent.

Each transit agency that uses the Clipper card contributes to a regional account to support the fare-payment system. At the end of October, that fund was $49,152 in the black. Following the media reports, it was running a $121,271 shortfall at year’s end, and the losses appeared to be accelerating to the point where fraud could cost the agencies millions of dollars in annual revenue.

To combat the alarming trend, on Feb. 25 the MTC will implement a $5 mandatory minimum fare for Clipper card purchases.

“We think this will cut down on the abuse of the system,” Goodwin said.

But even with a $5 minimum payment, the system will still be vulnerable to abuse. A one-way trip from Pittsburg/Bay Point to SFO costs $10.90.

BART President Bob Franklin said he hopes that since a large majority of trips are taken within the $5 fare limit, having that minimum will be an effective deterrent.

He said the agency should eventually move toward eliminating the Clipper card’s negative-balance feature. But he said such changes to BART’s fare infrastructure could be costly.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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