Question: I was recently driving in the Los Angeles hills on Topanga Canyon Drive.
At the crest of the hill, overlooking the San Fernando Valley, is a small parking lot with a great night view of the lights of the valley below. I pulled into the lot and showed the view to my friend for a few minutes.
As I was driving out, I suddenly saw a stop sign, which was partly obscured by a bush. I wasn’t able to stop completely, and slowly rolled through the stop sign.
I was in a deserted parking lot on the top of a mountain, next to a deserted road with little traffic, and thought nothing of it.
A few months later, I received an official-looking bill for $175. It came from a local government agency with responsibility for a small number of parks in the LA area (in some cases, they are little more than parking lots).
The letter notified me of a violation and provided a link to a video, which showed the rear of my vehicle, not the driver, and showed footage of the car driving slowly, trying to suddenly stop, and then rolling through the stop sign.
The “good news” is that this ticket can be easily taken care of, and there would be no points assessed with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
I thought about this and almost wrote a check. Then I thought about it a bit more.
First, if I had committed a violation, why would it not be reported to the DMV? Also, I had of course heard of red light cameras, but I had never heard of a “stop sign” camera.
The more I thought about this, the more it smelled of a scam. So I did some Internet research.
Apparently the organization is well known in the LA area. It has formed its own rules that violate the California Vehicle Code, which prohibits the use of violation cameras for stop signs.
Also, the Code prohibits assigning blame for a violation when the driver cannot be determined (i.e. no photo of a driver). They claim that because you are on “their” property, the Vehicle Code doesn’t apply and they can make up their own rules.
It turns out that this organization issues thousands of tickets (and earns millions of dollars a year) through these bogus tickets. A high percentage of people pay the ticket when they receive it, and feel lucky that their driving record won’t be affected.
Those that don’t pay start getting collections letters from an out-of-state collection agency, which threatens their credit if they don’t pay the original fine plus added fees.
It is my understanding that if you respond to the collections agency, saying that they have no proof you owe this debt and that you will report them to the FTC if they file information on your credit report, they just go away.
This seems like a particularly egregious scam, especially since it is created by a government agency. What do you think? — Peter D., Los Angeles
Answer: That’s absolutely outrageous. But before I begin my rant — and believe me, it’s coming — let me state the obvious: You wouldn’t have to worry about getting nabbed by a camera if you heeded the signs. (Haven’t you ever heard of the term, “California stop”?)
Beyond that, I’m really proud of you, because you didn’t just pay the bill without questioning it and that’s what smart consumers do. They look before paying.
This scam comes in many flavors. For example, I get letters every year from an Internet “registration” service that appears to be a renewal for the domain names I own.
But a close read of the fine print reveals you’re basically paying for nothing. These scammers are trying to fool you into paying a bogus bill.
I’m fit to be tied, as my dad would say. He’s from North Carolina, and if you aren’t, then you need to know that “fit to be tied” roughly means “mad as hell.”
The fact that so many people have fallen for this scam (I checked; you’re right) is even more infuriating.
I’m going to tell you how to avoid it.
Signs of a bogus bill
It looks official. Almost without exception, these rip-offs bear the imprimatur of a quasi-government organization.
It’s easy to pay — too easy. The bogus bill scams make it really easy to pay, and I’m not just talking about the payment method. Your “no points” offer was just too good to be true.
It backs down quickly. Asking questions — almost any question, really — is likely to make the scammer run away with his tail between his legs. So, simple questions like, “Do you have law enforcement authority?” or “Are you an Internet registrar?” are likely to get you off the hook.
Never pay an invoice unless you’re absolutely sure that it’s legit. If it isn’t, do a little research and ask a few simple questions. If it’s not a bona fide bill, it will go away.
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Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.