Who is sending Katherine Johnson's daughter parking tickets?
The Miami Parking Authority's citations, usually for $42 apiece, have arrived in the mail intermittently since 2014 for violations that allegedly occurred in Miami, where her daughter attends college. When Johnson challenges them, the price mysteriously drops to $15.
"Is this a scam?" asked Johnson, a trade analyst from Burke, Virginia.
Bogus parking tickets can affect visitors disproportionately. Someone with an out-of-state license plate is less likely to contest a parking fine, which can make their vehicles easy targets. But now travelers can fight back. And they should.
"The great news is that these days, there are a lot of apps and technologies that help people deal with a ticket that's bogus, undeserved - or just plain yours," says Dan Lear, director of industry relations at Avvo, an online legal marketplace.
There are two kinds of bogus tickets: those wrongfully issued by a parking authority and those tacked onto your windshield by a scammer posing as a city employee. The former kind has been a problem since the dawn of parking citations, but the latter seems to be a new problem, the result of easy access to handheld printers that can print an official-looking notice in seconds. Scam tickets have been sighted in Asheville, North Carolina, Palm Springs, California, and as far away as Britain, where the forgeries are so sophisticated that it's reportedly impossible to tell the difference between a real ticket and a fake.
"When we look into the data, we see a system that is very flawed," says Chris Riley, whose own frustrations with Miami tickets prompted him to create TIKD, a ticket-fighting app. "Tickets are issued unevenly and are full of the same biases we all hold as individuals," he says. "They're also a big financial burden. I think this is why many people have such a strong reaction to them."
TIKD's solution is a web app for South Florida drivers that automates the process of challenging traffic citations, thanks to computer algorithms and a network of lawyers whom TIKD hires on behalf of its customers. The company currently works on most traffic citations, with the exception of criminal fines, DUIs and those received by minors. Riley says his company is considering adding parking tickets to its list of services because stories like Johnson's are all too common, and not just in Miami.
Technology-based ticket-fighting options are still in their infancy. Among the choices are Parkingticket.com, which charges $4.95 a month per vehicle to fight your tickets, and smartphone apps such as WinIt, which disputes tickets in New York. The programs either help you fight a parking ticket yourself or enlist a specialist who goes to bat for you.
Another recent innovation is a chatbot lawyer at Donotpay.co.uk, created last year by Joshua Browder, a Stanford University student. The site offers a series of automated responses to questions about parking tickets, which can help you fix them on your own. In New York, the site has helped motorists successfully contest more than 9,000 tickets worth more than $3 million. Browder says travelers, particularly car rental customers, are heavy users of the site.
"From my experience, when the local government knows someone is using a rental car, they are particularly prone to issuing an unfair ticket," he says. "They know that rental-car customers are likely to be wealthier, and are more prone to making small mistakes."
One of the best ways to determine if a parking violation is legit and whether to fight it remains a real lawyer. It's a little counterintuitive, as parking tickets usually don't cost that much, and there's a perception that most lawyers won't take such small cases. But Andrew Hoverman, a Montgomery Village, Maryland, lawyer who focuses on traffic defense cases, says that's not necessarily true.
"Most people are unaware that they can hire an attorney to go in their stead to traffic court to fight on their behalf," he says.
Perhaps the best way of fighting a bogus parking ticket - no matter where it comes from - is to avoid getting one in the first place. My preferred solution is mass transit. But if you drive, an app like Smoothparking, which displays legal parking spots in New York, Washington and Milwaukee, among several other cities, will warn you when a street is off limits to parking.
Erica Conover learned one strategy on how to avoid parking tickets the hard way. When she moved to Boston to take a job as a technology publicist, she discovered that parking was almost impossible to find in her South Boston neighborhood. No matter how carefully she selected a spot, she would receive tickets - first for a "handicapped violation," then for double parking and finally for "other." Each time, Conover says she was lawfully parking. Yet she felt as if she had no choice but to pay.
She eventually decided to start taking pictures of her vehicle and where she parked it. When she received the next citation, she filed an appeal with the help of the digital images. It worked.
"My advice for really making a case?" she says. "Take photographic evidence. They proved I wasn't in the wrong."
As for Johnson's tickets? Art Noriega, chief executive of the Miami Parking Authority, said he was "not aware" of any current parking scams in the city but agreed to look into the citations. Miami, like most big cities, has no shortage of parking-ticket complaints, making it difficult to tell if Johnson's daughter was scammed or just the target of an overzealous parking enforcement official.
The investigation remains open.
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Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.