E-ZPass scam at Spring Valley NY customer service center of ACS

September 8, 2005
By Peter Samuel
New York State Thruway probably in Westchester Co - most is a mere 2x2 lanes
New York State Thruway probably in Westchester Co - most is a mere 2x2 lanes
Southern end of the NY State Thruway - Spring Valley CSC is off Exit 14
Southern end of the NY State Thruway - Spring Valley CSC is off Exit 14
NY State Thruway is mostly ticket system so there are many ramp plazas with E-ZPass lanes like this
NY State Thruway is mostly ticket system so there are many ramp plazas with E-ZPass lanes like this

Two ACS employees at the Spring Valley NY walk-in customer service center of E-ZPass and twenty outsiders, mostly truckers, are up on criminal charges for a scam being worked with transponders.

Former ACS employees Peter Piantinis and James Simmons are charged with stealing over 100 E-ZPass transponders and selling them to commercial account customers programming them, or fixing the accounts, so as to avoid an estimated $750k in tolls over the past year. They are indicted by a local Rockland County grand jury on charges of grand larceny, conspiracy and falsifying business records.

Another 20 people were arrested by New York State police and have been indicted. We gather they are customers who bought the transponders from Piantinis and Simmons on the basis that they would allow them toll-free travel.

ACS spokesman Joe Barrett says the two charged were "rogue employees" and that evidence of their wrongdoing was discovered by ACS after reports of irregularities. On March 4, he says, ACS notified the three major customer toll agencies of the ACS service - the New York State Thruway, PANYNJ, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels that it had uncovered "the irregular usage of commercial transponder accounts."

A prepared statement continues:

"Since that time, ACS has been working diligently with the state agencies and law enforcement to bring this investigation to a thorough and speedy conclusion. ACS committed in April to cover any lost tolls or any customer charges due to the fraud. The criminal activity required multiple levels of participation and ACS took immediate management action to resolve the problem, including terminations. ACS has been victimized and will seek financial restitution."

Kara Gerhardt Ross communications director at ACS says: "Any lost toll money or customer charges have already been repaid. Also, it was because of our auditing capabilities that we were able to detect, monitor, investigate and bring to justice two employees and their outside accomplices, and ensure that no client or customer lost money."

The ACS Spring Valley service center is located off the New York State Thruway on the west side of the Hudson River a few miles after the Tappan Zee Bridge traveling northbound. It seems likely the great bulk of the transponder fraud loss would have been at the expense of the New York State Thruway, though toll passes with the no-pay transponder accounts could have been made on nearby NY-NJ bridges and tunnels of the PANYNJ, and the Triborough MTA bridges and tunnels of New York City. Even the Massachusetts and New Jersey Turnpike could have lost some money.

The New York State Thruway at Spring Valley carries traffic going east to Connecticut on the Cross-Westchester Expressway to join I-95 north as well as traffic going south into New York City. Truckers face steep daytime tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

The Spring Valley CSC was a relatively small outpost of E-ZPass operations - with maybe 20 employees. Located at the Pascack Plaza shopping center ACS it is off Exit 14. It is one of eight walk-in customer service centers operated by ACS for the three big New York toll authorities and the New York State Bridge Authority. Others are at Albany, Buffalo, Grand Island, Queens, Staten Island, Syracuse and Yonkers.The main New York E-ZPass processing center with the management, hundreds of employees and serried ranks of telephone operators is in a large multi-story former railroad/shipping terminal building on the Staten Island waterfront overlooking New York harbor.

Plaza level audits

Auditing of toll transactions focusses on two independent data streams - one generated by the lane controller which coordinates the vehicle presence sensing equipment, usually a light curtain, the vehicle classification equipment, and the patron display. This data is time stamped. In the case of cash collection the other data stream is generated by the toll collector using the keypad of the terminal. In theory discrepancies between the two can be spotted rather easily while someone is watching. In the case of electronic tolling a reader in each lane manages a data flow between the overhead antenna and the windshield mounted transponder while a camera is triggered to image the vehicle license plate, and again all the data is time-stamped.

It is usually possible to sit in a toll plaza superintendant's office overlooking plaza operations and to see what's happening real time. There are usually CCTV cameras for a closer view of a lane or booth. On a computer screen a running transactions log is displayed. There is usually a 'ping' sound as each new transaction is registered and detailed in the plaza level computer, just a fraction of a second after it occured. All that data is usually stored on servers for a period of time, so it can reviewed if there is suspicion of irregularities. It isn't easy to beat at the plaza level without criminal collaboration at several levels.

Precedents

Thievery, often described by the euphemism 'leakage' in the toll industry is probably as old as toll collection itself. The Spring Valley NY E-ZPass scam is the first large larceny we've heard of connected with electronic tolling, but everyone expects attempts will be made.

In cash toll collection the largest thievery in recent times occured at the George Washington Bridge at the toll plaza in Ft Lee NJ. Seventeen toll collectors were arrested Nov 2000 after the PANYNJ discovered widespread stealing. Toll collectors thought they could beat the system by classifying vehicles UNREGISTERED on their toll terminals. They were taking the motorists cash and stashing it separately from transactions they had done honestly using the money tray. PANYNJ police infiltrated the toll collection staff and management under Ken Philmus began intense surveillance including video recording of toll booths, and hidden microphones. That continued until they felt they had accounted for all those engaged in the larcency, and had accumulated evidence that would convict the crims in court. Then they made simulataneous raids on homes and during a change of toll shift they arrested the perps as they came off shift. Most pled guilty and served jail terms. The loss was put at somewhere between $500k and $1m, though a portion of this was recovered by seizing cars and other property. (TRnewsletter #24 Feb 1998)

The PANYNJ toll system was a LockheedMartin/now ACS system. ACS's Kara Gerhardt Ross says that it was the auditing capabilities of that toll system identified the theft, and made possible the eventual arrests.

A PANYNJ offical described to us in late 2000 how an auditor was unable over many weeks to reconcile lane transactions and cash transactions. He thought first the lane equipment registering toll passes must be faulty and badgered maintenance personnel to fix it. After they reported the equipment was working fine it then dawned on him maybe the problem was on the cash side. They started close surveillance by watching simultaenously on their CCTV the vehicles as they passed and paid tolls at the booths while looking at the transaction as it was recorded by the plaza level toll management system on the toll superindent's screen. They began seeing cases of fraud as it occurred - live. They then put their police department onto handling it and the plan was devised to gather the proof of criminality and catch all the crims.

Illinois

There's probably a book to be written of stories of thievery at the Illinois Tollway, though some of the stories are tall ones frabricated or at least embellished by critics. In early 2000 the Tollway reported it was missing some $180k in coins from its money counting room over five months to the end of 1999. It turned out a single employee in the main money counting room had been systematically stealing a bag of money every shift he worked for... no one is sure how long. In the 1970s and 1980s a couple of chief execs went to jail for kickbacks on contracts and other high level crimes.

Syntonic, now TransCore, had a case on the Dulles Toll Road in 1997 when a project engineer embezzled $366k by working phony invoices for work he invented in connection with the installation of electronic tolling. Virginia DOT's Dulles Toll Road manager said around the same time that his auditors were "going nuts" about the lack of auditability of the first toll management system written by Castle Rock and TransCore.

There was systematic thievery occurring at the Indiana Toll Road for several years before 1997. After the crooks were quietly allowed to resign, and honest management installed there was a one-off rise in toll revenues of 5.3% and an especially large rise in concession incomes - 30% - in a road which had seen almost no traffic growth for years. Based on before and after reports in conditions of no change in traffic or toll rates it looks as though the crooks at the ITR had been bagging $4m to $5m/year.

Holdups

And course there is always the odd holdup at the toll plaza. The most colorful series were at the Chicago Skyway - Victor Sylvester, 48, a recently released crim who managed eight holdups at the mainline toll plaza between August 1999 and Feb 2000. He fooled staff and the cops by showing up each time in a different car and dressed differently. He was a big bear of a man with arms and hands large enough to conceal a pointed gun. Turns out he ran a backyard garage, fixing neighbors' cars and would borrow them for his forays to relieve toll collectors of their money trays at gunpoint. He lived just off the ramps beyond the toll plaza and was arrested after a made-for-the-movies highspeed car chase, trash cans flying and tires squealing through the alleyways and sidestreets of the southside. He'd gotten barely a grand in all the holdups but they only caught him after fulltime posting of about six plainclothes cops at the toll plaza, pursuit cars at the ready. The costs of that were many times the cash he took. TOLLROADSnews 2005-09-08

WITHDRAWAL: We've withdrawn two passages posted earlier reporting a critic of the auditability of the ACS New York E-ZPass system. It turns out that criticism - valid or not - doesn't seem to have much relevance to the scam at the Spring Valley CSC. TOLLROADSnews 2005-09-09


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