On Thursday, a Global News team went to Kennedy station to buy a child TTC pass.
They weren’t planning to buy it from the TTC, though — they were planning to buy it from a guy they found on Kijiji who said his name was Mohammed, who was trying to sell it for $150 in cash.
They had some questions for “Mohammed,” though, before they handed over the money.
But they didn’t get answers. Once Global reporter Sean O’Shea identified himself as a journalist, “Mohammed” fled, reporter and camera in pursuit. He ran down a hallway, up a staircase, across an icy parking lot and sped away in a black pickup truck with somebody else at the wheel.
A Global News investigation has found a thriving online market in children’s Presto passes, which are good for unlimited free travel on the TTC until the child turns 13.
Children’s Presto passes look identical to the adult version, and behave much the same when used.
A child’s pass bought for a child on her sixth birthday, the youngest possible age, is good for seven years of free transit.
But there’s surprisingly little scrutiny when a pass is being purchased.
Earlier this month, a Global News producer bought a child pass at a Shoppers Drug Mart.
She was prepared to show proof of age for her 10-year-old, but the clerk didn’t ask to see it. Instead, she asked for the child’s date of birth, took the mother’s word for it, entered it into a handheld terminal, and handed over the card, good for several years of free transit. No other information was asked for or given.
Total cost: $7.
But a moment later, “Mohammed” realized O’Shea still had the card, and came back for it. O’Shea still had questions, many questions, but “Mohammed” evaded them. He claimed, among other things, that he didn’t have a phone and doesn’t know what Kijiji is.
“Why are you concerned about the police?” O’Shea asked. (When arranging to meet, “Mohammed” had said he was afraid that Global reporters were the police.)
“Mohammed” didn’t answer that or other questions, but did denounce O’Shea as “the fake news of Canada” before leaving, this time for good.
Children’s passes are sold online for between $80 and $200, far more than if they were bought legitimately.
Between Kijiji and okz.ca, a similar site, Global News identified 10 different ads for children’s passes in late January, offered by four different sellers in the 416 area code. (It’s hard to tell, but the same pass may be being offered on both sites.) There was no sign of them on eBay.
The sellers are in the areas of Bloor and Bathurst, Bloor and Dufferin, Bathurst and Steeles, and Islington and the 401.
The ads come and go. These were snapshotted in late January:
- Ad 1 ($150)
- Ad 2 ($100, seller claims valid for four years)
- Ad 3 ($100, seller claims valid until 2023)
- Ad 4 ($100, seller claims valid for four years)
- Ad 5 ($100, seller claims valid until 2023)
- Ad 6 ($100, seller claims valid for four years)
- Ad 7 ($100, seller claims valid until 2023)
- Ad 8 ($100, seller claims valid until 2023)
- Ad 9 ($100)
- Ad 10 ($100)
The market seemed to dry up in early February, but Global News had no trouble locating a seller using the contact information in the ads published a few weeks earlier.
In mid-February, Global News bought a child pass for $80 in cash at Bathurst station from someone found on Kijiji who said his name was Ricky. “Ricky” demonstrated that the card would open the turnstile before the money was handed over.
O’Shea then identified himself as a reporter.
“Why are you selling kids’ cards?” he demanded. “Is that right?”
“No, it’s not,” “Ricky” conceded quietly.
“Ricky” then claimed that he had never done it before and also that he had only done it once. He pulled up the hood of his coat and jogged out of the station, ignoring further questions.
In a report published Thursday, Toronto auditor general Beverly Romeo-Beehler warned that it “is likely that a large percentage of the child Presto taps are fraudulent and the annual revenue leak for TTC could be in the millions.”
In an audit, TTC fare inspectors found 56 subway riders and 22 bus riders using child Presto cards. Not one was actually a child; all were adults fraudulently using the cards.
In the first 10 months of 2018, 12,584 child cards were used on the TTC system for 867,238 rides; the TTC has no way of knowing how many of those cards were used by real children.
Romeo-Beehler flagged a number of problems:
- The fact that adult and child cards look identical
- The fact that child cards flash an identical colour as student and senior cards when used: “This makes it impossible for bus and streetcar operators to identify the inappropriate use of the child cards.”
- Sellers don’t have to maintain a registry database of cards, so nothing stops someone from buying multiple cards for any number of real or imaginary children
- Since the cards look identical, an adult could claim they were using a child’s card by mistake if they were caught. It’s not yet clear whether the courts would accept this as an excuse
- A fare inspector who catches an adult using a child card can issue a $235 ticket on the spot, but doesn’t have the authority to actually seize the card. The process for deactivating a fraudulently used card is cumbersome, and involves the TTC asking Metrolinx (which operates the system) to do it. The TTC doesn’t get followup confirming that it’s been done
- Although child cards are supposed to expire on the child’s 13th birthday, Romeo-Beehler was concerned that this system isn’t working properly, and that some child cards may allow free transit with no expiry date at all
- Handheld devices to check Presto cards are “very slow, and many fare inspectors commented on their frustration with the slow speed.”
Romeo-Beehler wrote that TTC inspectors keeping track of the online child pass market had 48 ads taken down since last September, but lamented that sites like Kijiji have no way of blocking repeat offenders: “Similar ads continue to be posted after they are removed.”
Romeo-Beehler recommended suspending the child card program until better controls can be put in place.
“We now need to do work, particularly on the child card issue, with Metrolinx, and figure out a way to get a system in place that has a different-coloured card, makes a different sound when you tap, at least on the vehicles, so there’s some indication of whether people are using the card properly or not.”
“If in the interim we have to completely freeze the program, that’s something we’d have to talk to Metrolinx about too. It’s absolutely a possibility, at least as an interim step so we could get a different-coloured card in place and prevent that fraud.”
Two vulnerabilities of the system — the ability to buy cards for other people and different kinds of cards being the same colour — were deliberate features of the way it was designed, says Annalise Czerny, Metrolinx’s executive vice-president for Presto. But the TTC’s later decision to let children ride free increased the incentive for fraud.
However, any change to Presto would require agreement from 11 different transit systems.
“It was explicitly on purpose that you can buy a card for someone else and not need to have that person present at the time of purchase. Due to the scale of the usage, and due to the free policy for the TTC, it may be something that it’s time to revisit.”
“We understand, and certainly don’t minimize the revenue risk that poses to the TTC. Sometimes in trying to make things beneficial to many, there’s a risk that you provide an opportunity for a few who are trying to take advantage.”
Which of these three Presto cards is an adult one? We’ll help — it’s the one in the middle. #3 was bought from a black-market seller. #1 is a child pass bought for $7 from a legal source, with minimal questions asked. The only difference we could find is that this adult one doesn’t have the letter P in Braille (⠏), though other adult passes do have them.
We can’t find evidence of a similar market in Hamilton or Ottawa, whose transit systems also use Presto.
It isn’t possible to use either the Hamilton Street Railway bus system or OC Transpo without interacting with a bus driver, at least a little, so this may be part of the explanation. It’s much easier to beep into Toronto’s subway, at least, more anonymously.
With files from Sean O’Shea