Lawrence Walsh: An E-Zpass scam? Not so, says the Pa. Turnpike Commission

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 Before we begin today’s column, here’s a message from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for E-ZPass users:

“Make sure you properly mount your transponder on your windshield.”

“That’s the biggest problem the E-ZPass program has with its users,” said Tom Cohick, director of electronic toll collection for the commission.

E-ZPass is the money-saving electronic toll collection program that offers turnpike motorists the convenience of paying tolls without cash or tickets. The palm-size transponder is a radio frequency transmitting device that mounts on the windshield behind the rear-view mirror.

And now, today’s column:

There was only one car in the lane designated solely for E-ZPass users at the Monroeville interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike when I pulled in behind it.

The car, a beige Toyota van with a New Jersey license plate, was stopped beside the booth. The red-yellow-green light system just beyond the booth that changes from red to green when it registers a valid E-ZPass was showing red.

What was going on?

Was the driver in the wrong lane? Was his E-ZPass not working? Was his account out of funds? Did he even have an E-ZPass? Or was the Toyota driver waiting for another E-ZPass user to pull in behind him so that the E-ZPass in that car would change the light for him from red to green ?

In short, was the driver looking for a free ride from Monroeville to the New Jersey border where he could pull the same routine and cheat the turnpike out of $34.75?

Suddenly, the light turned green. The Toyota accelerated rapidly. The light, which had changed back to red, turned green as I approached it. I accelerated to catch up to the Toyota. It was heading eastbound, the same direction I was going.

I got close enough to read the license plate and jotted it down in a notebook. I pulled along side the van and looked over at the driver, a man. He stared straight ahead and didn’t acknowledge my presence.

I called Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. I told him about the Toyota driver and emailed a description of the car and its license plate number. He set up a conference call with Mr. Cohick, the electronic toll collection director.

Mr. Cohick said the E-ZPass equipment is set up to prevent incidents like the one I described.

“It can happen, but it rarely does,” he said. “Everything in the system is carefully timed. If it would happen, we would take care of it.”

That was good to know.

But, the next time I got on the turnpike, the red light changed to yellow and the letters LOW BAL appeared.

Yes, the letters mean low balance, something I had never seen before.

I called 1-877-736-6727, the toll-free number for the E-ZPass Customer Service Center. I asked a customer service representative if my account had been charged for a trip from Monroeville to the New Jersey line.

He said it hadn’t. He said the credit card number I provided when I set up my E-Zpass account several years ago no longer was valid. He was correct.

I had failed to give the E-ZPass program my new credit card number after my previous card had been placed at risk. Hackers had gained access to the credit card accounts of a store I had patronized. I provided my new number and he said I wouldn’t be seeing any more LOW BAL warnings.

Good.

Just as I was about to file this column, the following warning appeared on the turnpike commission’s website:

“E-ZPass Phishing Scam Alert! It has come to our attention that many people have received a notice like the one below. Please be advised that this is not a communication from E-ZPass, but is likely a phishing scam.

“We advise you not to open or respond to that message. If you have any questions about the validity of any message received from E-ZPass, please contact your E-ZPass Customer Service Center at 877.736.6727 for guidance.”

Here’s a copy of the scam email that’s being circulated:

“Subject: In arrears for driving on toll road

“Dear customer,

“You have not paid for driving on a toll road. This invoice is sent repeatedly, please service your debt in the shortest possible time.

“The invoice can be downloaded here.” The word here was underlined.

Don’t be fooled. Just delete it.

Information: www.paturnpike.com.

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1488. Please include your day, evening and cell phone numbers. Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email and phone call.


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