The great parking heist in downtown Aspen may be over. But the city of Aspen is still trying to unravel the years-long scam that siphoned more than $700,000 from municipal coffers.
The meter free-for-all began early in 2012 when drivers figured out that the parking pay stations for the 700 spaces in the downtown core would spit out pay-and-display passes for nothing. Normally the fee for four hours of parking is $14. The key to more than three years of freebie parking was swiping maxed-out, pre-paid debit cards in the machines. Such cards can be purchased in set amounts at many businesses, including grocery and convenience stores.
The parking pay stations allowed the transactions to go through because they only processed payments in batches at the end of each day. So worthless cards weren’t being declined until after the parkers had moved on.
Word spread around Aspen, and scamming the meters became more common there than Gucci bags and fur coats on poodles.
“They just elected to find a loophole and abuse the system,” said Blake Fitch who took over as interim parking director for Aspen when the previous director was transferred to ice-rink duty after the extent of the scam came to light last fall.
In 2012, drivers using tapped-out cards were racking up about $2,000 a month in phony parking payments.
By last summer, when the parking scam caught the attention of Aspen authorities, some drivers were treating the meters like slot machines that paid off every time. In a month’s time, they were snagging about $56,000 in free parking. By then, more than a third of all parking payments were being declined at the end of the day.
All that stolen time at parking spaces added up to $692,000. Add to that $50,000 in fees to process bogus transactions.
New machines that turn down tapped-out cards on the spot have stopped the thefts. But in a party-hard ski town where a certain level of misbehaving is tolerated, the stolen parking — and the fact that it was overlooked for so long — is still causing heartburn.
The city had to buy new parking pay stations for a cost of more than $600,000. Other parking-scam-related costs that haven’t been tallied yet include the cost of the Denver-based consulting firm hired to look into what went wrong, as well as legal and investigative fees.
The Aspen Police Department has been investigating the pilfered parking for more than a year, but is not close to identifying the space thieves. Police spokeswoman Blair Weyer said there were so many declined transactions — 67,000 — that the police have decided to focus for now only on those cards that racked up more than $1,000 in free parking. There are more than 200 of those out there. The largest declined amount on a single card was $7,035, enough to pay for 500 to 3,500 hours of parking that increases from $2 for the first hour to $14 for a four-hour period.
Catching the culprits
Police are seeking a judge’s order that is a requirement for obtaining information from banks about those cards. That information may or may not lead to identifying perpetrators: Purchasing debit spending cards does not require identification.
“It’s a pretty long process. It’s a paper trail,” Weyer said about the seven-month probe that so far has turned up no solid leads.
The Colorado Independent Consultants Network, which has become Aspen’s hired gun on the parking matter, has determined by studying patterns in the scam that the parking thieves were likely local working stiffs rather than the tony ski town’s wealthy visitors and second-home residents. That conclusion is based on the fact that the pay stations that were ripped off the most were in parts of downtown where construction projects were under way. Besides, the thefts didn’t increase during peak seasons when Aspen is jammed with visitors.
The Aspen City Council now is looking at hiring the consulting firm full-time to audit parking, as well as other city departments, so this type of scheme won’t happen again.
Firm owner John Olenberger of Denver told The Colorado Independent that people should know there’s no more free parking in Aspen (except on Sundays and holidays). And he has advice for paying parkers.
“I personally recommend the parking garage,” he said. “It is cheaper.”
Photo Credit: Jeramey Jannene, Creative Commons, Via Flickr