Pricey parking meter rates and the modern ease of dummying up fake documents are driving a new scam in downtown Chicago: counterfeit receipts left on dashboards of unsuspecting visitors who’ve paid a valet to stow their cars.
City law requires valet services to park cars in an off-street lot or garage, but unscrupulous operators are making counterfeit receipts en masse and using them to park cars in metered spaces. It’s an illegal way to lower their costs, and if a ticket gets written, the valet can just toss it in the trash.
As a result, people who thought their parking was covered as they ate dinner, went to a museum or took in a show sometimes get an unwanted surprise in the mail — a fine from City Hall for not paying a parking ticket they never knew they received.
To combat the scam, the alderman who represents much of downtown has proposed raising the fine for parking a car that displays a counterfeit meter receipt nearly eightfold — to $500 from $65.
“It’s so pervasive that we believe the fine needs to be dramatically increased to be a deterrent,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd.
Reilly said the issue came to his attention late last year, when parking meter compliance officers and the company that maintains the meters detected the practice. “It’s bad enough that valet parking services are hogging spots on city streets, but it’s even worse when they’re not paying for it,” said Reilly, who indicated that hundreds of fake receipts have been circulated.
The fake receipts are typically made using a computer, off-the-shelf software and a standard printer, said Scott Burnham, spokesman for Chicago Parking Meters, the firm that holds the controversial long-term lease on the city’s meters. It’s a new twist on an old scam. Before, some valet parkers would simply ignore meters and get rid of the resulting tickets.
Burnham declined to reveal how forgeries are detected for fear of tipping off the scammers. Cracking down on the practice would likely involve undercover enforcement details, Reilly said.
Reilly’s proposal does not boost the fine for non-payment. Instead, it raises the fine for parking the car with a “stolen, altered, defaced or otherwise tampered with or counterfeited” receipt. Such a citation could only be issued if someone is caught in the act of parking a car with a fake receipt or with fake receipts in his possession, Reilly said.
City and CPM parking enforcement aides can only write tickets for non-payment of meter fees, not for using counterfeit receipts. Citations for the fake receipts must be issued by either city inspectors or police officers. The number of tickets, if any, that city inspectors and police have written for doing that was not immediately available, city officials said.
The owners of a few larger, longtime valet parking companies said they were unaware of the scam and suggested it was being used by less reputable companies.
“They make it hard for legitimate valet companies to make it,” said Michael Munao, president of Five Star Valet. “These fly-by-night companies cut every corner they can.”
Munao said he supports Reilly’s initiative. “He should make it $1,000,” Munao said. “I think he should quadruple it. Suspend them. Put them out of business. . . . I’m 100 percent for that. I hope he does it.”
A spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel indicated city officials are looking at Reilly’s proposal, which the alderman said he had yet to discuss with the administration.
“We support cracking down on parking abuse, particularly if it affects unsuspecting motorists, and will work with aldermen on the ordinance,” city finance spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said. The parking meter company “supports efforts to curb these abuses,” Burnham said.
Reilly said his proposed ordinance, which he introduced at last week’s City Council meeting, would only apply to downtown. “We’ve seen the problem in the central core, and I’m looking to legislate where I know the problem exists,” said Reilly, who added he’s not aware of individuals using fake receipts to park their own cars.
In metered areas inside the Loop, motorists pay at a box with cash or credit card at the rate of $6.50 an hour during the day and into the evening. In the surrounding downtown area, known as the central business district, the rate is $4 an hour. Downtown Chicago downtown has the highest hourly meter rates of any big city in the U.S. or Canada, according to a study released in December by SFpark, an arm of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
The fine for non-payment of parking fees or letting your meter expire would remain at $65 under Reilly’s plan.