Arrests near in scheme to duplicate fare cards

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Several people are facing arrest in a scheme to make counterfeit copies of the Port Authority's new electronic fare cards, called ConnectCards, authority police said Thursday.

Phony copies were made of at least four ConnectCards, Detective Kevin Atkins said. He declined to say how many copies were produced, how often they were used or how many people were implicated, saying the investigation was continuing.

"We have identified some people who were involved in the situation. The arrests are pending," he said. They will be charged with access device fraud.

Authority officials had hoped that one of the benefits of a $41.7 million automated fare collection system that was installed over the past several years would be a reduction in fare evasion. But the perpetrators were able to make copies of valid ConnectCards and successfully use them at fareboxes on transit vehicles.

"It's not much different from the kind of counterfeiting we experienced before with the old [cardboard] passes," authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said. "People would try to take those, make those, sell them on the street. This is an ongoing thing. It's something we're going to have to deal with as we go forward."

ConnectCards have embedded computer chips that communicate with fareboxes, automatically deducting the rider's fare from a prepaid account or signaling the farebox that the cardholder has paid for a weekly, monthly or annual pass. The counterfeits were made from weekly, monthly or annual passes.

Once police became aware of the scheme, they and Port Authority staff were able to detect abnormal usage patterns in data collected by the fareboxes. Each counterfeit copy of a card would behave like the original, so if multiple copies were being used, an unusually high number of rides would show up in the authority's data.

With the old cardboard passes, it was difficult to detect counterfeiting, Mr. Ritchie said. With ConnectCards, "electronically our system can tell us, hey, there's something out there, there's an abnormal pattern here, and we can shut the card off, very quickly."

He said the authority is working with its contractor, Scheidt & Bachmann USA of Burlington, Mass., on improvements to fraud detection capability.

"Electronic security is an evolving thing," said a company spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name. "We attempt in every installation to include the absolute latest technologies available to prevent fraud. Everybody is trying to stay ahead of the criminals, and it's an ongoing battle."

Officials stressed that no personal information is stored on ConnectCards and that the fraud did not involve identity theft. "It certainly isn't like Target," Detective Atkins said.

Riders can register their ConnectCards with the authority as a safeguard against loss or theft, but the card itself carries only information about what the rider has purchased, he said.

He urged transit riders not to purchase ConnectCards from unauthorized sources and to report any attempt by unauthorized people to sell the cards.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.8. First Published February 27, 2014 8:54 AM

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