Herb Swanson

Wrongfully accused by the electronic surveillance state

Florida put me through automated trial by phone for a toll I didn'€™t owe

May 4, 2014 1:45AM ET

The collection agency that keeps calling doesn’t seem invested in talking to me live; it phones with a recording, leaving a presumptive voice mail message — a threatening male voice urging me to quickly return the call. Such is the nature of the debt recovery business: So many people dodge these phone calls there’s really not much sense in a live person reaching out. So much urgency, but even when one answers, as I do, the system’s default is a talking robot assuming it’s uploading its demands to a listening robot’s memory. It assumes rote, machine-on-machine action.

I’m a different kind of deadbeat, though. I want to be reached. I am a man who, in the eyes of this tangle of machinery, stands guilty until proven innocent … and I want my day in court. What’s unsettling, though, is that the opportunity to prove my innocence has been severely limited. For example, when I return the debt collector’s call, the automated menu insists I punch in my account number. As if I’m supposed to maintain an account with a collection agency. I try hitting 0, but I can’t reach a live person. And so, accused of wrongdoing, it’s almost impossible to face my accusers. And the face-to-face issue is where my problem originated.

Customer service

It began with a so-called invoice mailed to me through the folks at the charmingly named SunPass, which is the Florida Department of Transportation’s electronic transponder payment system for unstaffed tollbooths. The invoice was from Toll-by-Plate, the state’s image-based electronic toll collection system. This is a fancy way of explaining that, at least on a particular 47-mile strip of Miami-Dade highway, the state has decided that having living, breathing toll takers to collect money from those folks who don’t use SunPass is inefficient. So instead, it snaps pictures of every car that doesn’t have a transponder, runs each photo through an optical character recognition (OCR) program that scans the license plate and mails a bill to the registered owner of that car. A model of modern efficiency.

Of course, though this efficiency may save the state a lot of money, it doesn’t get passed on to the driver. My Toll-by-Plate invoice featured an added administrative fee far outstripping cost of the toll. In fact, though the FDOT claims the tolls save drivers an average of 25 cents per toll in gas, every Toll-by-Plate invoice has a built-in $2.50 fee.

Besides the additional fee, my invoice had some other features. Toll-by-Plate had established an account number for me (I was now considered a customer) and sent along a high-angle, fuzzy black-and-white photograph of a light-colored sedan. There was a rear license plate in the shot. The printout underneath the photo clarified the information in bold government type: It was a Pennsylvania license plate number that I recognized. There were just a few problems with this:

1) I have never driven a car that I owned in Florida.

2) The license plate was registered to a dark blue SUV, not a light-colored four-door.

3) That license plate hasn’t belonged to me since I sold that SUV three years earlier.

4) Despite what the invoice claimed, it was impossible to accurately read the plate number in the photograph.

This invoice was not the OCR software’s finest hour. While it shouldn’t have been my problem, I dutifully dialed the 866 number (the hotline is toll-free, even if the roads are not) suggested under the heading “If you are not the owner of this vehicle.” It took awhile to get through to a person, because the phone system kept insisting I key in my account number, and I steadfastly refused to embrace the idea of having an account simply because Toll-by-Plate had decided to foist one upon me. Every man has his limits.

Eventually I was able to get through to a customer service rep and started recounting my concerns. Things were starting to feel Orwellian at this point. The customer service operator wouldn’t believe me it when I told her I hadn’t even been in Florida recently; she seemed to feel that position was essentially disproved by the very Toll-by-Plate invoice in question. My innocence wasn’t believed because its paperwork was conclusive evidence to the contrary.

Regarding the next two items on my objection list, I was told the FDOT didn’t cross-reference car and plate information.

“But if you did, then you’d see I’m telling you the truth,” I said.

“But we don’t do that, sir,” came the what-am-I-supposed-to-do-about-it? response.

I suggested it easily could, since whatever license plate database it uses to look up car owner registration information would also de facto have make and model information.

“People don’t look at any of the photographs,” she said. Instead, a computer scans the plate information, retrieves the address and generates the invoice.

This point naturally brought us to my fourth objection: The plate’s illegibility was true not only from my perspective (since the photographed car wasn’t mine, the numbers must have been misread) but should have been true also from the operator’s perspective (because she couldn’t read the numbers on her computer’s image). This may have my crowning achievement as a logician, but my conclusion didn’t have the slam-dunk impact I’d hoped for. Yes, the woman agreed, she couldn’t read the plate. But that fact didn’t rule me out as the culprit — er, customer — now, did it? The illegible plate could still be mine. I was informed there were photographic experts to whom the shot could be forwarded for further analysis. They would make the final determination and let me know. But first there were some forms I’d need to fill out, more information for me to provide.

I bristled at all this. Make the final determination? “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” I wanted to start chanting. I wasn’t going to spend one more precious minute on this. “I’ve called you to report your error,” I informed the rep. “I’ve explained it. Now I’m done. This is not my problem, because this is not my car.”

The woman told me she wouldn’t forward the case to the image analysts without my further cooperation on the information required, but I refused and hung up.

99.91 percent accuracy

The letters kept arriving, first from Toll-by-Plate, with late fees adding to administrative fees, then from a debt collector with further compounding fees (and new account numbers). Then the intimidating calls started coming. I ignored it all. They had the wrong guy, it would work itself out; the arc of the automated decision tree may be long, but I knew it bends toward justice.

Across the country, the machinery of efficiency is taking an ever-encroaching and authoritative position.

Then the new invoice showed up. Another Florida violation had wedged itself into my life from a thousand miles away. The same Pennsylvania plate but a different car. This time it was a BMW; I could tell by the style of the grille, because this photograph was taken from in front of the car. Interesting, because not only do Pennsylvania-registered cars sport single, rear license plates but so do Florida cars. As do the cars of every state within 500 miles of Florida. I sat back and watched the process start over. I realized I’d likely have a better time making my case with customer service this time, since the no-front-license-plate argument would be hard to ignore. But I was tired of offering SunPass answers it didn’t want to believe. Instead, I realized it was time to start asking questions it didn’t want to hear.

I left a voice mail with the FDOT’s Public Affairs Office and receive a call back quickly. But only, I suspect, because of the potential for this story to tarnish FDOT’s image. (The woman I spoke with let it slip that she Googled me before returning my call. A reasonable conclusion might be that the FDOT was trying to figure out if it was worth dealing with me or not.) She was deeply apologetic about the false positive bills and couldn’t understand how it happened.

Happened twice, I reminded her.

All the more mind-boggling to this spokeswoman. Twice? She couldn’t get over it, explaining that the FDOT’s data showed Toll-by-Plate is 99.91 accurate in reading license plates.

I asked why the system would take shots of the front of a car when so many states don’t require a plate there. She explained the cameras take front-view photos only of trucks; since 18-wheel truck cabs haul various trailers registered to different owners, the DOT needed to make sure it was invoicing drivers and not trailer owners. She seemed proud of this answer, as if this truck situation had kept the Toll-by-Plate people up at night until a clever solution was reached.

I wondered what the accuracy rate was on determining the front of a vehicle from the rear. Instead, I asked what made the camera think this little BMW was a truck — and mine at that?

There was long silence on the line.

No one knows. But of course, the OCR software doesn’t look at the car, just the plate. So an error so simple that a 3-year-old could explain it slips past the high-tech sentinel and, as a result, I’m suddenly in the system as owing Florida money.

“Did you call?”

I explained the argument I’d had with the customer service rep over the first mistake. “I have to say, it felt like a situation where I was guilty until proven innocent,” I said.

“They should’ve taken care of it when you called,” she said. “That shouldn’t have happened.”

“She didn’t act like excusing the toll was even a possibility,” I said.

“Well, you wouldn’t believe what some people will do to get out of paying a toll,” she said. “They change the numbers on their plates. They use electrical tape.”

In other words, the entire foolproof process — we take pictures of plates and correlate them to owners — has been built knowing that the cameras don’t always get the numbers right.

The spokeswoman sighed. “We read 57 million plates a year, and I’d say 99.91 percent accuracy is pretty good.”

In the house's favor

Hearing it again, this fact struck me as possibly a statistic with a baked-in bias, because most people getting an invoice for two or three dollars likely don’t think it’s worth the time and effort to try to correct the error. Further, if they live and drive in Florida, they might not even know that it is an error. Certainly my getting two false reads in the span of a just few months points to a more generous error rate, unless this experience was my singular brush with lottery-odds luck. In other words, 99.91 percent accuracy may more properly translate into “We get money from 99.91 percent of the invoices we send.”

But let’s assume FDOT’s real false-read numbers are merely double the paltry 0.09 percent it claims, with an equivalent number of motorists who pay either because they’re uncertain about the invoice’s veracity or because they find it easier to pay a nuisance bill for a service they didn’t use than to spend their time and energy to correct the FDOT’s error. With 57 million plate images read in a year, that’s still over 100,000 mistakes, or more than 10 every hour around the clock. If the average invoice is $5.00 and even if half are dismissed as errors, that’s still $250,000 per annum in unearned, extorted fees going to the state. And this is on only one 40-odd-mile stretch of pavement out of the thousands and thousands of turnpike miles nationally that will eventually be switched to Toll-by-Plate or a similar system. (The plan in Florida calls for quadrupling Toll-By-Plate road miles in the next two years.) At the very least, the system forces a choice for thousands of innocent people between wasting their time and resources to resolve the mistake and paying. Undoubtedly some of both.

Even if it is just a rounding error in terms of government-level amounts, I can’t help wondering why the accounting errors are always in the house’s favor.

Across the country, it seems that the machinery of efficiency is taking an ever-encroaching and authoritative position. From the absurdity of Americans who share names (and nothing else) with no-fly-list terrorist suspects to RFID tags announcing that you’re stealing that Blu-ray disc you just paid Walmart for, machines are increasingly making the calls, and regular old humans seem powerless to do anything except follow prescribed procedures. Just in the toll-taking arena, we have an outbreak of travelers overcharged at airport parking lots in Dallas and California drivers fined for using properly mounted bike racks that nevertheless obscure license plates from overhead cameras they didn’t even know existed.

“Give me the invoice numbers, and I’ll have this all taken care of,” said the spokeswoman. I refused.

“I want to see how this all plays out,” I said. “Let the system work the way it was designed. I want to see where it goes. We’ll talk again.”

I wanted to add a snarky, “We’ll talk after this illusory toll jump trashes my credit rating.” But I didn’t. Because a part of me knew it could happen, and if it does, I won’t be able to blame it on SunPass. I had my day in court but chose having the last word over fixing the problem.

Emotions get the best of me sometimes. Maybe it sometimes makes sense to let the machinery sort things out. 

Stuart Connelly is an author and filmmaker. His psychological thriller "The Suspect" starring Mekhi Phifer has just been released on home video.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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