With upgrade, meters could have operated in real-time | AspenTimes.com

With upgrade, meters could have operated in real-time

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

An upgrade would have allowed Aspen's parking meters to process payments in real-time, and depending on when it became available — and at what cost — it may have softened the blow from a parking scam that has resulted in more than $600,000 in unpaid debt since 2010.

This and other details were revealed Monday when The Aspen Times obtained 58 pages of emails between the city's Parking Department, Finance Department and the City Manager's Office.

It is unclear when the upgrade became available, but of Toronto-based vendor Precise Parklink Inc.'s major customers, Aspen is one of only three that processes payments in batches, according to emails. With this antiquated processing system, the meters have been susceptible to a scam where maxed-out cards aren't rejected until the end of the day, even though parking is granted.

In an email sent to Finance Director Don Taylor on Sept. 17, Accounting Manager Alice Hackney said she aired audit concerns to Precise in 2009. Hackney describes frustrations with Precise over customer service throughout the 58-page dialogue.

"It would have been natural customer service for them to give us options to address my concerns," Hackney wrote, admitting that she did not ask directly for a solution. "It is frustrating that they never suggested we blacklist prepaid debit (bank identification numbers) or convert to live transaction processing."

In an email sent to Taylor on Aug. 28, Accounting Supervisor Chris Lundgren describes conversations with Precise Director Mary D'Alonzo, who explained how rare batch processing is with her customers.

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"We do have the option to upgrade to this functionality by 'upgrading the readers' on our current kiosks, and a full replacement would not necessarily be required," Lundgren wrote.

In the email, Lundgren explained he was waiting on answers from Precise about how much the upgrade would cost and how long it would take.

The Aspen City Council recently approved a more than $600,000 purchase for 81 new meters to be installed in December. The current system, which was installed in 2007, has an estimated 10-year lifespan.

City officials could not be reached for comment as of press time for this story.

In an email dated Sept. 22, Taylor explains that in July 2011, there was discussion among management staff about declined transactions. During the prior year, declined transactions had resulted in about $27,000 of unpaid debt, and "it was agreed upon by all that it was not worth making the substantial investment in the existing equipment for the few years left before scheduled replacement of the equipment."

His office now estimates unpaid debts of $37,800 in 2011, $78,036 in 2012, $227,220 in 2013 and $448,000 so far in 2014. The total since 2010 comes in at $817,000, though Taylor attributes about $121,000 to non-fraudulent transactions made by motorists ignorant to the scam.

Furthermore, the email explains Payment Card Industry standards went into effect at least six years ago, meaning the city hasn't been blacklisting entire card numbers since 2008. In its most recent attempt to thwart the scam, the city has been blocking sets of bank identification numbers associated with prepaid debit cards.

Finance has been tracking accepted and declined transactions since 2009, according to Lundgren. In November 2013, the department asked Precise to stop having declined transactions resubmitted because very few of the resubmitted transactions were ever accepted. Resubmissions also added to processing fees.

Lundgren's email also gives insight into the scam's major perpetrators. According to him, one card number, which was blotted out by the city's Legal Department, had 117 declined transactions in July and eight declines on July 10 alone. Further, 272 credit cards were declined in May and July, averaging $295 per card. Officials have requested information from Precise to locate areas in town that perpetrators frequently abused.

As far as recouping losses from maxed-out debit cards, Lundgren explains that the cards must be registered with the issuing bank prior to use, which allows for data on some personal information and past usage. The issuing bank can assist in tracking down the perpetrator, he wrote. If the card was never registered with the issuing bank, the bank is responsible for all fraudulent purchases made by the card.

The Aspen Police Department is currently investigating the scam.

herk@aspentimes.com