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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I-495 Express Lanes "Administration Fee" Scam

IF YOU ARE ONE OF THE MANY THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE BEING HOUNDED BY TRANSURBAN FOR HUNDREDS OR THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS, OR IF THEY'VE ALREADY GOTTEN A JUDGMENT AGAINST YOU -- or if you are just mad because they are asking you to pay a $12.50 administration fee for an obvious mistaken entry --  please read through the comments below, and email Lisa Marie Comras (lmsdigiulio@gmail.com), who is organizing a class action against Transurban.  Her attorneys will contact you and then you'll be able to decide for yourself whether you want to be part of the move to hold Transurban accountable.
According to Emily Miller of Fox 5 DC, Transurban filed 26,000 lawsuits against drivers in 2014 alone.  Maybe you're one of those drivers.  If you're facing an immediate court date, you might find some good ideas here or here, courtesy of attorney David Bernhard, via Emily Miller.  But when that's over, you should still strongly consider joining the class action.

Original post:

I've posted about the I-495 Express Lanes (on the DC Beltway) before.  But now I have fallen victim. I got on the Beltway to go to work a couple of months ago.  I don't do that very often -- probably hadn't done it at all since the Express Lanes went up -- and all of a sudden found myself alone on the Beltway, in some lanes partitioned off from other traffic.

And for the record, there wasn't any other traffic to speak of -- it was all going the normal 65 mph, and I wasn't gaining anything by being in the express lane.  I don't have an EZ Pass.  I got off at the very next exit, and rejoined the normal Beltway traffic and got into work, no problem.  But a few days later, I get a letter from I-495 Express.  It tells me that I owe them thirty-five cents (35 cents) for driving on their road for that stretch.  Oh, and by the way, I also owe them a $12.50 "administration fee" for their trouble of tracking me down to ask me for the 35 cents.

In other words, rather than simply forgive obvious mistakes like mine -- i.e. one-exit trips on the express lane, at a time of day when there is no traffic in that direction -- they have turned our mistakes into a potentially huge and predatory profit center.  It's not about the 35 cents, it's about the 12 dollars.  And I'm sure it doesn't cost them anywhere near that amount to send out a letter.  They are clearly making at least $10 off of every 35-cent mistake.

I had an IM exchange with them that I would reproduce here, except that it makes me too easily identifiable.  But the gist of it was that I was screwed.  If I didn't pay the $12 within 30 days of the letter, the "fine" goes up to $25.  And if I don't pay that, they turn it over to collections, with almost certainly a mark on my credit record.  I don't know what would happen if I had let them sue me -- I think I probably would have had some decent defenses.

It turns out if you pay on-line, the price is only about $10.  Still a huge and unwarranted profit for them.

So what we need is an ambitious class action lawyer to represent us to get our money back.  The legal theory is simply that it's toll road piracy by a private entity, taking advantage of mistakes, and that it's a farce to call it an "administrative fee" because their administrative expenses are clearly just a fraction of the total amount.  Discovery would be extremely useful here -- it would be nice to know just how much money they make off of this, and to get discovery on whose bright idea it was to impose the fee in the first place.

I'd be willing to help, but for various reasons, can't participate in a meaningful way.  If you are a class action lawyer and want to have some fun with this, I'd be happy to provide you more details about my situation -- just leave an email address in the comments.

And if this has happened to you and you want to join the class, just leave a note below (can be anonymous for now), tell us your story, and keep an eye on this space.

By the way -- the one tip I can offer to those of you, like me, who knew they were in the wrong lane and got off as soon as they could.  495Express has a program where if you know that you made that mistake, and are able to pay them $1.50 plus the missing toll before they are able to send you the letter demanding $12, you are off the hook.   Of course, it's difficult to figure this out until after you've gotten the letter.  Until then, you don't necessarily even know who you are dealing with.  Details here.

UPDATE:  As you can see from the comments below, part of the problem is that Transurban -- the Australian outfit that is sweeping in all of those "administration fees" -- apparently sometimes waits with sending you the letter until you've accumulated dozens of violations.  At that point, you might owe them about twenty bucks in tolls, but hundreds of dollars in "administrative fees."  I've now drafted a letter (available here) that you might consider sending if you find yourself in that position. In short, the letter includes a "payment in full" check, which, if cashed, should get you off the hook legally.  If they decide not to cash it and turn your account over to collections, you need to be sure to tell the collections people that the case is "in dispute," and you probably need to monitor your credit record as well to make sure that you are not improperly reported.  It's unlikely that you'll ever be sued on the matter, because it's not worth a lawyer's time to go after you for a few hundred dollars.


UPDATE 10/22/14:  Emily Miller of Fox 5 DC (who also seems to be a right-wing gun nut (http://www.amazon.com/Emily-Gets-Her-Gun-Obama/dp/1621571920) has done some real good here by shining a spotlight on Transurban and its predatory practices in two news segments in the past 10 days.  And she says that she'll keep on top of this issue, which is a good thing. But so far, she has absolutely zero constructive suggestions for how this will stop -- she just suggests that if you have a problem, you should contact Transurban.  Many commenters below -- and people who talked to Emily Miller -- can tell you how that goes.  She doesn't mention the possibility of bringing a class action, which I discuss at more length in various replies to this post.  As I said somewhere else, media attention of the kind that Emily Miller is giving the issue is just the kind of motivation that a class action lawyer needs.  Now someone just needs to go out and find one!  (I've posted phone numbers for three different firms below).

Emily's most recent article contains a rather significant math error, which I hope she corrects.

Here's the direct quote:

"Well, 96 percent [of customers having problems with Transurban] sounds good -- until you do the math. There are one million drivers on Transurban's 495 Express Lanes. So that means there are 4,000 people out there with these problems. And I found over a dozen of them in just one week."

Actually, if you really do the math, you realize that 4% of one million is 40,000.  That's a lot of drivers who have had problems with this company.  And it sounds like a pretty good size for a class action!

UPDATE 10/29/14:  Two very positive developments.  First, as reported by WTOP here, Transurban is going easy on "first time offenders" -- if you're a first time offender, after you receive an invoice, you have 60 days to prove that you have "rectified the issue and pay the tolls in full."

Here's a quote from a Transurban person named Coffee:

"If you get an invoice that has more than one trip, more than 10 trips, more than 15 trips, you call us. You tell us what the issue was, that you've put funds in your account. We collect your tolls and you move on. However, the next day, you've got that clean slate and it's up to you to ensure that you've got your EZPass properly mounted, that you've got funds in your account and that your license plate is linked to your EZPass so that you avoid that in the future," 

The article goes on to say that if a first-time violator's case goes to court, Transurban will cap the fees at $2,200. According to Coffee, "With the new program in place, we will not be seeking more than $2,200 on any first-time violator no matter what." 

The article is not very clearly written -- I can't be one hundred percent sure whether a first-time violator means a single violation or not, although from the context, it looks like you can be a "first time violator" with multiple violations.  Assuming the latter is the correct interpretation, it sounds like some of the commenters below should be able to get off for only $2,200.  Still a lot of money, but not necessarily bankruptcy-worthy.  If you're in that position, it sounds like you should call Transurban and ask how their new policy applies to you.

And here's a report about an ongoing court case -- Toni Cooley against Transurban.  Toni had over $10,000 in fines, including about $2000 in "administrative fees".  The judge wiped off the administrative fees because Transurban couldn't prove that it cost them that much money just to send out a few notices.  So that's good to hear -- the administrative fees are what set me off on this whole stupid thing to begin with.

UPDATE Nov. 17, 2014.  One of our readers is organizing a class action against Transurban.  I'm reproducing her post up here just so it doesn't get lost a a reply to a comment:

I am serious about a federal class action. I have an attorneys contact information and one other person that I have thus far met with that is moving forward with me. The more people, the more seriously we are going to be taken. email me - lmsdigiulio@gmail.com. Give me your total tolls (before any admin or civil penalties) and then give me your total paid/settled/etc.
For example: MINE: $14.20 total - $10,751.40 judgment