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SEPTA Key cards bring a new twist to an old subway hustle

Enterprising scammers are using Key cards to give cash paying riders a discounted trip on the Broad Street Line and the El.

Cashier Joyce Woolford at SEPTA's Erie Station on the Broad Street Line in Philadelphia. Cashiers are asked to call police to report scams.
Cashier Joyce Woolford at SEPTA's Erie Station on the Broad Street Line in Philadelphia. Cashiers are asked to call police to report scams.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

SEPTA is contending with a new kind of fare evasion, in which enterprising scammers are using Key cards to give cash-paying riders a discounted trip on the Broad Street Line and the El.

Because SEPTA does not track or estimate revenue losses due to fare evasion, said Rich Burnfield, deputy general manager and treasurer, the agency can’t say whether more people are dodging fares than usual.

Cashiers working on the subway lines, however, insist scofflaws are proliferating. One cashier, Hafeeza Taylor, made hash marks on a Post-it note to track fare evaders at the Cecil B. Moore station. On a recent Thursday, she made 60 hash marks in eight hours.

Cashiers are asked to call police to report the incidents, they said, but it’s becoming overwhelming.

“We call so much they get tired of hearing from us,” Taylor said.

The latest trend is made possible by the Key card, which offers a $2-per-ride fare, compared with $2.50 for customers paying cash at a cashier’s window.

The people taking advantage of the system carry several Key cards, sometimes stacks of them, cashiers said, loaded with weekly or monthly TransPass fares. A weekly pass sells for $25.50 and offers 56 trips, more than a single commuter would likely use in a week and each trip costing the equivalent of 45 cents. The person then accepts $2 cash to swipe passengers through the turnstiles. The traveler gets a 50-cent discount, the scammer potentially gets $86.50 richer per card, and SEPTA loses out on fares.

Key cards have a restriction that prevents them from being used again within a short period after a trip is purchased, to prevent multiple people from going through on the same card. That’s why the hustlers carry multiple cards. They can cycle through their cards as the time restriction on any one card expires.

New York City’s subway system has people running similar hustles with Metro cards, an Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesperson said. If caught, they can be issued a summons or arrested.

SEPTA, and transit agencies nationwide have waged a long battle against fare dodging. Cashiers have seen the elderly taking money to swipe people through with their senior citizen passes, which allow free rides. Student passes, too, get misused. Others simply jump turnstiles or wriggle through them.

The Key card has heightened the problem in Philadelphia, cashiers said, and they link the fare evasion with the elimination of tokens last year.

“This is the worst it’s ever been since I’ve been down here,” cashier Joyce Woolford said.

SEPTA officials say they have no way to quantify whether fare evasion is worse than usual. The agency reported ridership revenue as of May 2019 as below budgeted projections, but SEPTA also is struggling with reduced ridership on city transit that likely accounts for most of the lost revenue.

Some people selling the cheaper trips are respectful, moving along when asked, but others have become aggressive. They can intentionally jam the kiosks’ cash slots so customers don’t have other fare options, SEPTA officials confirmed. And last month, Woolford was threatened by a person at the Erie station, who was reported to police.

“He threatened me, spit on my window,” she said. “He told me I was interfering with his livelihood.”

SEPTA has beefed up enforcement on the subways, Transit Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III said. The agency reduced the fine for fare jumpers to $25, but selling discounted rides on a fare card is a misdemeanor violation that carries a $500 fine for a first offense.

“That Key card is purchased for that person to travel on the system, not to allow five people he doesn’t know to get a discounted rate,” Nestel said.

On Wednesday, he said, the department charged five people with the fare card offense. Violators are tricky to identify, though, as they tend to roam among stations and flee if they see police. The department has benefited from improved surveillance, Nestel said, and has taken other steps he declined to describe to crack down on selling discount trips.

SEPTA said the offenders would disappear if riders weren’t willing to pay them. “They’re feeding a bad element of society that we don’t want in our concourse,” Nestel said.

Others, though, argued SEPTA’s fare structure causes the problem. When tokens were still available, a person with $4 in cash could buy two of the fare coins, the cost of a trip there and back again. Without tokens, the person with $4 doesn’t have enough to buy a Key card, which initially costs $5.95, and can no longer buy two rides with that cash.

Several obstacles contribute to cash-paying riders’ taking the hustle: unfamiliarity with Key technology, stories of the cards not working properly, and a lack of text in other languages at the kiosks that sell the cards. It’s easier for people who pay with cash — about 13% of SEPTA’s ridership — to just give their two bucks to the guy who will swipe them onto the system.

» READ MORE: Eulogy for the SEPTA token

“At the end of the day, I find it hard to vilify hustles, because in my view and a lot of scholars’ views, the fare structure on SEPTA is kind of regressive,” said Joe Gallagher, a student in geography at the University of Oklahoma and a former Temple University student, whose graduate thesis is on transit fare systems, with a focus on SEPTA.

A Pew study recently found SEPTA’s fare system and the distribution of jobs in the region made the city’s public transit agency one of the most expensive among large American cities for poor riders. Advocates for people living in poverty have long argued that SEPTA’s new fare system disadvantages the city’s poor, who are less likely to have bank accounts or access to technology, two tools that make it easier to unlock the benefits of the Key card. SEPTA has responded by refitting the kiosks that dispense Key cards to accept cash, a process expected to be finished in December, and, in July, reducing the minimum load of a Key card from $5 to $1.

Executives like Burnfield seem frustrated that some prefer paying a random person $2 to buying and registering a Key card. The card allows people discounted transfers, he said, and if registered on SEPTA’s web site, a person won’t lose their balance along with a misplaced or stolen card, and is reimbursed the initial cost in rides.

“It’s their money,” he said. “You need to protect your money. It’s the right thing for them to do.”

The initial cost to buy a Key card helps pay for the expense of the $173 million system, and encourages users to recognize it as something to hold onto rather than a disposable fare card.

It was SEPTA’s obligation, though, said Lance Haver, an advocate for equity on transit who now does consumer advocacy for 6ABC, to create a fare system attractive to customers.

“SEPTA has created an entrepreneurial opportunity for people because of their bad planning,” he said. “If they simply set up a process where people could get the ride for $2, people would do it.”

» READ MORE: For Philly’s poor commuters, SEPTA fare ranks among most expensive in U.S. cities

Cashiers have less empathy for the people buying from scammers.

“Nine times out of 10, they have" the cash, Woolford said, "and they’ll put the 50 cents back in their pocket.”

Cashiers’ disdain for black market trips comes in part because it creates so much trouble for them. They’re required to contact the Transit Police at every instance of fare evasion, and can get singled out by supervisors if cameras show them looking the other way when someone walks through without paying properly.

Woolford, who has worked for SEPTA for 28 years, sees the people running the Key card hustle as emboldening others to avoid paying the full fare.

“You have the elderly, you have everybody,” she said. “Everybody is seeing what the swipers do, and they’re doing it, too.”