Clipper Card’s Dirty Little Secret (Hint: It Can “Go Negative”)

Photo: Matthew Roth
Photo: Matthew Roth

Of all the ways you can use your Clipper smart card for payment on transit agencies throughout the Bay Area, you probably didn’t realize you could use it like a credit card, spending up to $10 more than the value on the card. And you probably didn’t realize it’s set up with the perverse economic incentive to game the system, whereby you can scam distance-based fare operators like BART out of most of the cost of your trip.

Or maybe you did and you hoped to fly under the radar?

Here’s how the scam works, and mind you it is especially effective on BART, where you don’t have fare inspectors or conductors to check your Clipper card and catch you. At any retailer or vending machine that sells Clipper, load the minimum $2 dollars on a new Clipper card. Buy a bunch of them this way, if you like. Pay cash and do it at a Muni Metro vending machine in downtown San Francisco if you really don’t want to be traceable. Then ride BART where ever you desire and you will never have to pay more than $2.

Let’s take Civic Center to the San Francisco Airport, a trip I made over the weekend to see if the scam worked as a Streetsblog tipster had suggested. I bought two $2 cards at the vending machine, paying $4 in cash. When I tagged into the system at the fare gate, the card had a $2 value. I rode to SFO, a trip that should have cost me $8.10. When I tagged out at the International Terminal fare gates, instead of an “Insufficient Fare” warning, which I would have seen had I been using a $2 traditional BART fare card, my Clipper card subtracted $6.10, leaving me with a balance of $3.90 of someone else’s money.

After completing my return trip to Civic Center with my other $2 Clipper card, I ended up with $16.20 worth of BART rides for $4. If I had entered BART at one of the terminus stations, like Pittsburgh Bay Point, and traveled to SFO round-trip, I could have gamed BART for $21.80.

Because the cards still register the negative balance, and I would have to pay that down before I could add a positive balance to the card upon re-loading it, the smart thing to do would be to throw away the cards. At a cost of $2 per card to manufacture, I’m essentially paying for the privilege of adding two pretty blue cards to the landfill.

What a steal!

Of course, someone has to pay for the scam and that would be the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional transportation planning body that administers Clipper (though in the end it’s the taxpayer who foots their bill). MTC settles its Clipper debts every day with the transit agencies participating in the program, so BART would have been repaid the cost of my trips from regional funds allocated to the Clipper roll-out.

MTC spokesperson John Goodwin acknowledged that Clipper cards can “go negative,” which he said the MTC programmed into the card to help customers get out of a transit system where there aren’t fare machines or customer service personnel to help them add value to their cards.

“It’s a built-in convenience to the system, based on the goodwill that people will re-load their card,” said Goodwin.

According to Goodwin, Streetsblog’s inquiry represented the first time an “enterprising journalist blew the lid off this” (actually, Stanley Roberts at KRON appears to be first). He said the Clipper program managers were looking into whether or not there is “wide-spread abuse of this system,” though he acknowledged that they had not determined what the threshold was for that abuse. He also acknowledged that MTC “wouldn’t be able to answer precisely the question how many people are scamming the system.”

He could say that in August, the most recent month for this data, there were only 152 cards out of more that 100,000 that had only been used once. He also knew that in October 5 percent of 247,700 Clipper cards in use had a negative balance. Beyond that, the agency had not finished evaluating the potential for this type of fraud. Goodwin said the “ability to go negative is a standard feature in most smart-card programs” and he said he believed that “north of 95 percent are using the card correctly.”

“We designed the system based on an expectation that the vast majority of our customers are honest,” he added.

Though MTC has no current plans to reprogram the software to eliminate the ability to go into debt on the card, Goodwin said there were numerous options at their disposal if they thought there was widespread abuse, including lowering the card’s debt balance or charging a small amount for each card.

BART’s spokesperson Linton Johnson said his agency knew of the scam, calling it “Clipper’s dirty little secret,” but he declined to provide further comment on the matter.

Tom Radulovich, a BART Board director, said he was disappointed with MTC, which he said was botching the implementation of Clipper. “One of the things we were promised with [Clipper] was that it would be harder to scam the system, but it turns out there is a pretty easy way,” he said.

Radulovich said he had tried to get BART staff and MTC to retrofit BART’s Add-Fare machines in its stations to accommodate Clipper, but MTC was reluctant, preferring to rely on retail outlets like Walgreens to fulfill that role. While that might make sense in downtown San Francisco, it was a ridiculous proposition at a BART station like Orinda, he said.

“They didn’t want to retrofit the Add-Fare machines. They didn’t want to pay for that. They’ve not been willing to put the money forward,” he argued.

Radulovich said MTC could avoid the scam by making the debt option possible only for someone who registers their card with Clipper so they have a record of the user. But, he argued, MTC were transportation planners, not operators, and they didn’t have experience with customers like BART did.

“They’ve been in such a rush to declare success, they don’t care if agencies are losing money,” he said. “Scamming the BART system is a flaw and that is definitely something they should fix.”

  • Addy

    Am I the only one who feels that public transportation should be free? I don’t exactly think it’s fare-scamming riders that are tearing at the fabric of our public transit infrastructure with barred teeth. It’s interesting that people are blaming MTA for not squeezing every last dime out of people instead of blaming MTA for having a regional transit system in which it costs over eight dollars to take short rides like to SFO.

  • Marco

    Here’s the problem: the Clipper card is supposed to REPLACE CASH. Not augment it to make things (supposedly) easier a la FasTrak, but make it IMPOSSIBLE TO USE CASH without feeding it through the Clipper system – which doesn’t work reliably! You cannot walk up to a Muni entry point and drop $2 in quarters in the turnstile, there’s no slot for quarters anymore. You MUST go over to the ATM-like machine and add paper money (not coins), or use a credit/debit card to load value onto a new or existing Clipper card. Compare that to FasTrak on the Bay Bridge, where the supposedly speedier lanes are all so backed up that there’s no point in having a FasTrak – it’s a ridiculous mess, but at least you can opt out and pay cash as usual. You don’t have to feed your money into a broken money management system on top of driving through a broken arrangement of lanes.

    Here was my (first) experience with Clipper card today: I put $20 into the vending machine, got a brand new card that said it had 10 rides on it, walked twenty feet to the turnstiles and the card DID NOT WORK at ANY of the turnstiles. The very helpful Muni booth clerk called the Clipper people on the phone, they requested to talk to me personally, and proceeded to tell me they couldn’t help because they can’t even see the card in their computer system until after midnight, when the data is uploaded to them! They want me to phone in again the next day, maybe I’ll have to mail the card in for a new card or a refund by mail, blah blah blah. As if I’d trust these idiots to actually mail me a refund instead of “losing the paperwork”. Making people spend an hour on the phone talking to tech support for an effing MUNI FARE that was until recently the simple matter of having some quarters in your pocket, is the height of ridiculousness. Thanks for the article, you can bet I’ll be making Clipper pay for my wasted time.

    Everyone knows that government is inefficient and slow. Nonetheless a service must be set up so that it actually WORKS, and FOR EVERYONE. You can’t force people to have a credit card to ride public transit – not everyone has a credit card! Not everyone has $50, or even $5, that they can afford to load into a plastic card so they can pay for a $2 train fare. A $2 fare should cost $2! Lots of people are one-time or infrequent riders, especially visitors, you can’t assume everyone is a commuter!

    If they want you to buy a plastic card instead of a paper ticket, it’s fine, so long as 1) it costs the same whether you’re rich or poor, 2) is extremely reliable and/or there’s an easy way to resolve problems, such as talking to a station agent and getting the issue resolved on the spot. The Clipper card fails miserably.

  • Marcos – breathe deep you luddite.

    This is nothing.

    Seriously though, for a government setup Clipper Customer Service has not been so bad, speaking as someone who’s been using this stuff since the bad old days when it was just Golden Gate Transit.

    When I left Boston in 1992, you bought tokens from a person in a booth and put it in a token slot to ride the T. When I went back for the first time in years, 2006, I went to the T Station and had to buy a “Charlie Card”. I had no idea what a “Charlie Card” was, but I figured it out. I asked someone about it and people were used to it and the system had stabilized, but there were some kinks. Clipper will be the same. And yes, there will have been a lot of money poured down the drain to get there – just the renaming alone was millions.

    If it saves MUNI money in the long run, it will be worth it – yet none of us will really see the effect first hand. Broken readers will be quicker and easier to fix than broken fareboxes, and immune to the almost certain shrinkage that happened in the count rooms from time to time. Those savings will be put to *some* use, one can hope.

    All those issues will get easier to fix – and I say this as someone who is VERY annoyed at the Caltrain rollout. I’m not annoyed at Clipper though – I’m annoyed that Caltrain has such a poor knowledge of their customer base that they did not produce a good spec for the vendor to implement. Short term we’ll pay with a badly designed system, long term we’ll pay when Caltrain has to pay up to have Clipper fix the issues.

    One thing that won’t get resolved – richer people will pay less than the more middle income folk, because they are more likely to be in the system for pre-tax transit benefits, and the benefit is worth more to them if they are in higher tax brackets (excluding those who are skirting income taxes altogether in the cash economy or make so little money that they don’t owe any taxes).

  • maee

    this sucks, i just turn 18..now i have to pay $2 each ride?? so a day would be $8.. and the worst is i don’t even have a job yet..seriously, this is too much for a ride for students like me who just turn 18 with no income OR from low income family!!!

    Can’t they make a STUDENT DISCOUNT instead of YOUTH discount?? NOT EVERYBODY IS GONNA GET A JOB RIGHT AFTER THEY TURNED 18!!!!! this idea is REALLY SUCKS!!!!

  • Ian

    Some London perspective on this. The London Oyster card is very similar in scope to Clipper, and charges an activation fee of £3 (about $5). Nobody moans about this, it’s explained reasonably as a fraud-prevention measure, and Oyster fares are a little lower than pay-as-you-go cash fares so any frequent use will pay for the activation fee. However, the ability to go negative is limited: on entry to a station, if your card does not have the minimum fare then you have to top it up. Also, London still allows single-journey fares to be paid for in cash, using a machine or a staffed booth, so infrequent users can just pay and go. In short, they seem to have worked all the kinks out of the system pretty well, including integration with other travel discount schemes.

  • Arago007

    Doesn’t each new Clipper card cost $5?

  • curious george

    I have a question to ask about the Clippard Card. I bought a card and added $20 on an adult card. If I use it one way it will deduct $2.00 on the card, right? Here’s my point: I used to card to pickup a prescrition refill at Walgreens…it took less than 5 minutes to wait. To go back home I used the clippard card and it deducts another $2.00; costing me $4.00 roundtrip in less than 10 minutes to pickup my prescription using my clippard card. On the other hand, if I would of used cash value of $2.00 and get s transfer; it would of cost me $2.00 roundtrip with the transfer on the same ride using a clippard card costing me $4.00 roundtrip. Here is my point of validation and concern: Would it be possible to use my clippard card on the bus and ask for a transfer to return back home within the time frame of the transfer? Then the round trip would cost me $2.00 using a transfer with one time use of a clippard card. Then, it would make more since to use clippard card one way and ask for a transfer to return, without having to use to clipoard card again, cisting me

  • mikesonn

    If your 2nd clipper “tag” is done in under 90 min, you aren’t charged again. The reader will beep, but it won’t deduct another fare. Check the clipper website and your usage report.

  • Bruce Halperin

    Clipper (not “Clippard”) takes transfers into account automatically, for Muni as well as all other transit systems that accept it. All tags on Muni within 90 minutes of the first do not deduct any fare.

  • Bruce Halperin

    Autoload cards can never go negative, since they’ll reload once the get below $10. That’s the point of autoload, after all.

  • Bruce Halperin

    $3

  • Kay Torres

    Exacty!

  • Mario Games – play top free games. Like and share on facebook or g+.

  • RRRRIGHT ON !!! I FULLY AGREE.

    The in-between currency will be used to force anyone with savings to spend or turn in their cash because they understand that people who have money and are not dependent upon them might be the very ones who will mount an insurrection against them. If everyone is broke, no one can fund a war of any kind, paper currency will cease to exist. This is one of the first signs.

    But to implement the worldwide electronic money system, everyone in the world who might have money in the future, will have to have a way to transfer money electronically. Before that time, everyone will have spent, before the year 2,000, all of their cash, reserves and assets. Everyone has to be 100% dependent upon the Council for their existence.

    To prevent any kind of independence, the new world order has already implanted micro chips in wild animals, birds, fish, etc.

    Why? They want to make certain that the people who will not accept the new world order will not be able to hunt or fish any where in the world. If they try, they will be tracked and traced by satellites, then hunted down and imprisoned or killed.

    The new world order is already changing the laws of all nations to make everyone dependent upon a single food and vitamin supply.

    They are changing laws about religion and psychiatric disorders in order to identify anyone who is potentially threatening to the NWO. Those who are found defective will be sent to eradication camps where their organs will be taken and sold to the highest bidders. Those who are not killed outright will be used as slave labor or used in medical experiments.

    The goal of a dictatorship is to control everyone, everywhere on the planet, ruthlessly and without exception.

    That’s why the new technology being introduced everywhere is a technology for the control of the people. The technology of the 1940s and 1950s was used to help the people have an easier and more productive life.

    The new technology is designed and built to track down and control people everywhere. This technology is being manufactured for a specific purpose and to refuse to see and recognize that purpose , which is to enslave the entire populations of the world, is to deny the emergence of the antichrist and the establishment of the new world order religion and government.

    If you cannot see, if you cannot learn, if you cannot understand, then you and your family and friends will succumb to the fires of the crematoria that have been built in every state and every major city on earth, built to deal with you.

  • they are called sheep

  • you are a perfect tool.

  • you use multiple cards for two bucks. no need to top off anything

  • yes, hopefully we can convert the entire money system into plastic and just burn the poor people with little money and no plastic who still need transportation. burn them in piles. great idea paul. lets hope for that.

  • Games Mincecraft

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