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As parking permit prices rise, so do thefts

With parking permit costs on the rise, some students are looking for ways to avoid paying the heavy fee by scamming the system and victimizing others with methods that often leave unsuspecting students confused, angry and with a sizable dent in their pocketbooks.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a trend,” said Lorraine Caccavale, business manager for the USF Department of Transportation and Parking Services. “But it seems like in the last few years we’ve encountered these types of situations more often.”

The con works like this: An unscrupulous individual in the possession of an invalid parking permit, usually one that has been reported lost or stolen, notices an unlocked car door and a valid parking permit hanging from the car’s rearview mirror. Seeing an opportunity, the individual removes the valid permit from the car and replaces it with the invalid one. The car’s owner is unaware of the permit’s theft and so fails to report it stolen, which allows the unscrupulous individual to continue using the valid permit without fear of consequence.

“When we talk to students, invariably what we hear from them is, ‘I don’t always lock my car,'” Caccavale said. “So it’s not an issue of someone breaking into a car to steal a parking permit, it’s more a crime of opportunity.”

Meanwhile, the car’s unsuspecting owner is driving around, completely unaware that the permit hanging from the rearview mirror is invalid – until he or she parks illegally or a parking patrol officer does a random permit check. Then the owner is made painfully aware of the permit’s status by the boot that Transportation and Parking Services places on all vehicles displaying a lost or stolen permit and the hefty fine they levy for the boot’s removal.

“Nobody knows the number on their permit, so they don’t notice it and they keep driving around with it – until the day when something happens,” said Frank Granda, the operations manager for Transportation and Parking Services.

Granda said that students hoping to avoid this situation should exercise a little common sense, specifically locking their car doors and keeping their cars secure.

Putting a number on how often this sort of theft occurs is difficult, since Transportation and Parking Services doesn’t keep tabs on this sort of activity specifically, Granda said. It does tabulate the total number of permits reported lost or stolen every year, but even those numbers are somewhat unreliable since students commonly say they are unsure whether their permit was actually stolen or just misplaced, and in that case permits are labeled as lost.

“So the number of stolen permits is almost surely underreported,” Granda said.

Granda explained that out of 30,000 permits issued during the three terms from August 2005 to August 2006, 552 were reported lost and 159 were reported stolen. University Police also takes an inventory of items missing in cases where a car has been burglarized, but the numbers of permits stolen during those instances were not readily accessible, UP spokeswoman Lt. Margaret Ross said.

Students suspecting that their permits may have been stolen should immediately report them to Transportation and Parking Services, Caccavale said, because if they don’t, any tickets racked up on the permits are their responsibility, regardless of whether they were the ones parked illegally.

“Realistically, we have to assume that students lent it to someone,” Caccavale said. “And we are going to hold them liable for those citations.”

Additionally, students who report a permit lost or stolen and then later find it should cut it up and dispose of it, Caccavale said, because attempting to use it again will only result in a boot and a fine. Once permits are reported lost or stolen, they cannot be put back into circulation. Replacement permits can be purchased for $24.

To curb permit theft in the future, Parking and Transportation Services is looking into some new technology, Caccavale said. One proposed innovation is scanning devices that would quickly read barcodes on parking permits to determine whether they were reported lost or stolen. Currently, the numbers on parking permits must be entered manually by parking patrol officers.

Another proposal involves changing the permits themselves to “cling” or “repositionable” permits that don’t permanently adhere to cars but would require anyone removing the permit to peel it off, a more difficult and time-consuming undertaking than simply pulling it off a rearview mirror.

“We are looking at moving in this direction in the future, because that would hopefully eliminate a good deal of these problems,” Caccavale said.