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A Hummel Report Investigation

EZ Money

Four out of every five drivers crossing the Newport Bridge now use the EZ Pass, making it more convenient and less expensive to travel between Newport and Jamestown. But if you're one of the motorists who bought an EZ Pass transponder directly from the manufacturer, Jim Hummel finds there may be a surprise on your first bill.

SCRIPT

Hummel: ``Increased tolls on the Newport Bridge have prompted thousands of drivers to get the EZ pass. Well, if you're one of those motorists who had it shipped, you may be in for a surprise when you get your first bill.''

It has become a popular and efficient way to negotiate toll roads and bridges in more than a dozen states. And for many, EZ Pass is simply a matter of economics. To get across the Newport Bridge it'll cost $4 if you pay cash. For Rhode Island residents with an EZ pass - 83 cents.

That has resulted in the vast majority of the 25 million vehicles crossing the bridge since 2008 to use EZ Pass. Lance Edwards is now one of those motorists.

Edwards: ``I go to Prudence Island maybe two or three times during the winter. And when they increased the cost of the tolls considerably, it literally would have cost me $8 roundtrip.''

So Edwards, who lives in Exeter, had a choice: go to an office at the bridge and purchase a transponder, or order one from the manufacturer in New Jersey, ACS Inc., which is now owned by Xerox.

Edwards ordered online and when his transponder arrived last month there was already a charge for $2.35 from this exit near Worcester on the Massachusetts Turnpike - two days before it got to Edwards' house.

Edwards: ``What caused me to even look at my bill is I was pre-warned. I was pre-warned by my sister-in-law. Her son, who is only 22, ordered one and it was shipped in through New Jersey and sure enough, there was a charge on it. She checked. She had to set up his account online, password and all that. And there was a charge on it, and again it was from the Mass Pike.''

ACS ships the transponders inside an envelope and the transponder is supposed to be wrapped in a Mylar bag: to keep the device from being read - and charged - by tolling agencies during shipping.

Edwards: ``So when I opened the box, the first thing I see is the transponder wrapped in a very thin bubble wrap. Underneath that was my original paperwork, and underneath that is an empty Mylar pouch. Flat with nothing in it. The first thing we did was we called New Jersey. We called the main office.

``At first they said: well, you had travelled on the Mass Pike. And I explained to them, this is the charge, if you want to do a tracer on when I received it, I was charged before I got it, two days before I got it.''

Hummel: ``So that shot their argument.''

Edwards: ``Very quickly. So they said they would reverse the charges. And I asked to speak to the supervisor and they wanted to know why. And I said because obviously this is not the only time this has happened and this is not the only phone call you've had, because my sister-in-law did exactly the same thing I did.''

So we brought Lance Edwards' issue to David Darlington, chairman of the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority, which oversees the EZ Pass system in Rhode Island.

Hummel: ``What was your first reaction to that?''

Darlington: ``No  way. No way. I couldn't believe that that was happening to somebody.''

So Rhode Island officials called ACS.

Darlington: ``It  didn't take long when we started looking into it to see, in fact, it was true.''

Hummel: ``They were aware of this, right?''

Darlington: ``They are aware of it and their chosen method to deal with it is, if somebody calls they'll make an adjustment. But that's not how we operate. It shouldn't be charged - simply because somebody trusted us and didn't look at their bill doesn't mean they should be charged for things they didn't do or didn't incur.''

As a result Darlington has had the Bridge and Turnpike Authority staff working overtime to review every one of the 40,000 EZ Pass transponders shipped from New Jersey since the program began here in Rhode Island four years ago. Up until now, he said, there hadn't been many complaints.

Darlington: ``As we looked into it we'd adjusted 367 accounts out of 28 million transactions, so I understand it didn't raise anybody's eyebrows, but now that we've looked into it, we find that about 4 percent of all the transponders sent out by a vendor - which was about 40,000 of the transponders - have had trans toll charges to their account while the thing was in shipping that never called us to have them adjusted, nor should they have to.''

ACS has accounts with the majority of the 25 EZ Pass agencies in 14 states,  including Rhode Island.

Last week, the board of the Bridge and Turnpike Authority Rhode Island voted to cancel its contract with ACS, something it had planned to do months ago anyway before we raised the issue of improper charges - because of other issues it had with the company.

An ACS spokesman in Kentucky tells the Hummel Report that the improper charges are ``a rare occurrence impacting a small fraction of drivers who receive their transponders through the mail.''

``We have identified the issue and taken immediate steps to rectify it. We expect no further similar problems. Any transponder inadvertently charged, will have their account credited. We apologize for any inconvenience.''

Hummel: ``The thing that's baffling to me is there is a Mylar bag there and it seems very simple - that all they really had to do was stick it in the bag.''

Darlington: ``Well it's not just simple, Jim, our contract with them says they'll put it in the bag. And their answer when we called them was `It must have wiggled out  of the bag while it was being shipped.' Well you can tell from looking at that bag - it's not possible for that to have happened.''

Hummel: ``Did you see wiggle room?''

Darlington: ``There's no wiggle room, exactly.

There's no wiggle room.''

Lance Edwards last month ordered a second EZ Pass to see if his first shipment was a fluke, so we decided to see for ourselves as he opened up the ACS package from New Jersey. The company had told Edwards the transponder probably slid out of the Mylar pouch.

Edwards: ``We have the transponder. We have my paperwork. And look at this. We have a pouch. We have a pouch! There's not a fold, nothing. Now, if this was inside this pouch. Inside this sized envelope, you tell me how that can possibly slide out of  that pouch. Not possible.''

Darlington: ``I think a lot of bigger tolling agencies, you know these kinds of issues would be acceptable and they would say this is how we're going to process through. This little agency here in Rhode Island, we try to be a little more proactive about things. If this issue had been raised to us earlier, we would have done it earlier and taken care of these customers. The process shouldn't be: we're going to charge you for something you never did, and unless you pick it up and call us, you have to eat the cost of it. That just shouldn't be.''

Edwards: ``For something like that to happen and have millions of transponders sent out annually you'd have to have a very inefficient shipping department and a manager that isn't doing his job.''

Hummel: ``Do you think it's intentional or it's laziness?''

Darlington: ``I think it's probably laziness. I think they didn't supervise their people well enough to see that they weren't putting them in the bag. I'm sure they instruct them to do it but they obviously were not on top of this issue.''

Darlington says the authority's review is about 25 percent complete and so far about 4 percent of the accounts had improper charges. The authority has already started contacting customers who were overbilled, crediting their accounts. The authority is charging ACS for the overtime tab to review the accounts and for the cost of the improper charges.

And from now on, he says, all the transponders will be shipped... from Rhode Island.
In Jamestown, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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