On-Street Theft – Sledgehammer and Hacksaw …

Larry Donoghue

Cheating by patrons and theft of parking meter revenues by employees and by vandals or professional meter theft rings is common. More than 50 percent of U.S. cities have had serious theft scandals. The losses in the United States have ranged from $20,000 to $30,000 on the low side in smaller cities to more than $3.6 million in larger cities.

Theft by Collectors
One of the worst examples was in New York City. A Brinks Express collection crew of five men, on the day they were arrested, had stolen $5,800 in coins. That is nearly $1,200 per man. Our company was an expert witness in that case. Brinks was found guilty of and received a fine of $2 million for compensatory damages; it also was fined $5 million for punitive damages.

Professional Meter Theft Ring
Professional meter theft rings operate over wide geographic areas moving from city to city on a daily basis. The average meter ring attack results in losses of $20,000 to $25,000 as a result of a single night's attack. We were instrumental in capturing a meter theft ring in Coral Gables, FL. It consisted of a ringleader (a corrupt locksmith) and two collection crews and two lookouts that operated in broad daylight. They would come to a city during the night and cut off meter heads in about three to five zones. The cut-off meter heads were then delivered to the ringleader, who would be in a nearby motel. He would cut open the meters with a power saw to obtain the locks. With his lock-making tools, he would fabricate keys that worked in each of the zone’s locks. The next day, the crews would go out to rob the meters. The van they used was equipped with five sets of various colored uniforms to closely match the color used by meter collectors of the city that they were attacking.
The actual theft took place using two technicians, a uniformed meter collector with a wheeled collection canister and a person in regular civilian dress to serve as a lookout. They communicated with each other by means of walkie-talkies using throat microphones and earpieces so their communications were not apparent to the general public. The collector would start down a block with the fabricated keys. The lookout would give a signal if the coast was clear to start opening meters.
After the crew’s arrest, the ringleader admitted to netting, after all expenses, more than $500,000 during the previous calendar year. The police found meter keys for three nearby communities in his possession for cities that they planned to raid in the next few days. Ironically, after the ringleader’s conviction, while in jail he developed an idea for a meter lock that he claimed was “theft proof.” He wrote to the city’s director of parking asking him for his assistance in contacting possible lock manufacturers.

Patron Cheating
There are many ways that patrons cheat parking meters. A few are described here. When we were conducting an operational audit of Chicago’s parking meter system, we observed a man in a white Cadillac parked at a meter. He got out and went to the meter and fumbled with it for about two minutes to create a jam. He then opened the trunk of his vehicle and removed a brown paper bag from the trunk. The bag had a hand-printed sign on it saying “Meter Broken.” He then slipped the bag over the meter head and left to go to work. As soon as he left the area, we retrieved the bag, opened the top of the meter, removed the jam, closed up the meter and notified a nearby Meter Enforcement Aide to put a citation on his vehicle because the meter was in violation.
A Chicago policeman was found with about 200 parking citations in the trunk of his vehicle. What he had done was switch license plates with the plates on his wife’s vehicle. When he would be given a citation for a parking violation, he would call the Violations Bureau and tell them he found a citation on his vehicle, but it didn’t belong to him because, while the license number matched the license number on the vehicle he was driving, the description of the vehicle did not match the vehicle he was driving. The color, body style and make of vehicle were different.
While conducting an audit of the parking meter system in a mid-continent city, we found most meters on one block jammed with either paper or blades of grass. This was an everyday occurrence. We did some surveillance. It turned out that the meters were being jammed by employees of a nearby hotel. One of them discovered how to jam the meters, and he passed the word on to his fellow employees.

Vandalism Losses
Patron theft and vandalism have resulted in substantial revenue and equipment losses in many cities. A Florida client’s operation was severely damaged by homeless people who found out that the key used to open a can of corned-beef hash could be used successfully to open the lock of the meters. They would then steal the coin cans from the meter vault and break them open with a hammer. They would leave the meter vault door closed but unlocked, and come back periodically to pick up coins that had been deposited since they had broken into the meters. The city solved the problem by changing to an electronic lock that also was tied in with a handheld computer to download the revenue totals each time the meters were collected.
When we were engaged by a large city in Pennsylvania to conduct an audit of its parking meter system, about five meters were being removed by vandals each day to a remote location where they would smash the vaults with a sledgehammer to obtain the coin can and its contents. The meter heads were being obtained by prying then off the posts with a hydraulic jack. When a meter head is removed like that, a municipality loses money in three ways:
The loss of the cost of the meter.
The loss of the coins in the meter vault.
The loss of the meter revenues until the head has been replaced.

What Is an Operational Audit?
An operational audit is a comprehensive examination of all aspects of a parking meter revenue control system. It should be conducted by a revenue control specialist experienced in conducting such an audit. The operational audit examines the many crucial elements of revenue control of parking meter systems. Some are listed on page 29.

Benefits of Operational Audits
They are an inexpensive insurance policy against employee fraud scandals.
If patron cheating or employee theft is occurring, it will be detected so that the fraudulent activities and resultant losses can be stopped.
Because the procedures will have been tightened up, the dishonest employees won’t be able to keep satisfying their theft habits. The loss of that source of revenue will cause them to quit the agency and seek work elsewhere where controls aren’t so rigid.
A greater percentage of fines are collected due to improved citation administrative procedures, resulting in higher revenues.
Reduced number of meters that are inoperative due to inadequate meter maintenance, defect reporting and repair procedures, resulting in higher revenues.

Larry Donoghue is president of Larry Donoghue Associates.
He can be reached at (847) 297-1180.

Article Abstract from February, 2007

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