By Ellen Jean Hirst and Jon Hilkevitch
12:15 AM CST, November 26, 2013
Catherine Garypie, a federal employee, pulled a card out of her purse and swiped it recently at a Jackson Blue Line turnstile. The Ventra fare reader turned green — Go, it read. But she didn't.
Garypie was demonstrating how, for the third time in three trips, her federal ID card — which isn't linked to any accounts — tricked the Ventra system into thinking she'd paid a fare.
She discovered the glitch Thursday night when she inadvertently swiped her ID instead of her Ventra card, which she keeps in the same pocket of her bag. In a hurry, she walked through the gate.
"There was nobody around, so I thought, well I'm in a hurry so I just went home," Garypie said. "I thought it must be a fluke."
After testing it again Friday morning, she told a CTA manager and her employer, the Environmental Protection Agency, about the problem. The EPA sent employees an email, alerting them that their work IDs can sometimes trick the CTA's Ventra fare card system.
"Please be advised that intentional misuse of federal credentials is prohibited," the email read in part. "We are grateful to the EPA employee who reported this matter."
The federal ID card appeared to admit passage about 1 in every 10 swipes.
EPA spokeswoman Anne Rowan said the agency was working with the CTA to fix the problem Monday.
CTA spokesman Brian Steele said Monday that the issue with the EPA employee card is "the first time we have seen something like this. We don't believe there are any other instances out there.''
He said the CTA expected to fix the problem by the end of the day Monday. Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., the California company that developed and is managing Ventra for the CTA under a $454 million contract, "is already installing a system modification to mitigate the issue,'' Steele said.
In addition, Cubic will be held responsible for reimbursing the CTA for lost revenue from unpaid fares due to glitches with the Ventra system, Steele said.
But on Garypie's commute home Monday evening around 5:45 p.m., she tested her federal ID again, and it tricked the reader on the first swipe.
The issue marks the latest glitch since the CTA rolled out Ventra. Customer problems included difficulty activating Ventra cards, fare overcharges and poor customer service that have frustrated commuters since the general phase-in of Ventra began Sept. 9.
Ventra marks the transition to an open-fare payment system, in which any credit or debit card with "contactless,'' or radio frequency identification, technology can be used to pay fares on the CTA and Pace.
Under the CTA's old fare-collection system that will be retired soon, the only smart cards accepted are Chicago Cards and Chicago Card Plus cards. Those cards have performed well since their introduction in 2004.
Ventra cards are among the newest types of smart cards, outfitted with not only the radio frequency identification antenna but also a computer chip and a magnetic stripe. When a Ventra card is tapped on a Ventra reader aboard a bus or at a rail station turnstile, the reader receives information from the card and determines within 2.5 seconds whether the card is legitimate — either a Ventra card or a debit or credit card that has the radio frequency technology — and approves or denies entrance.
The Ventra card information is also sent to a computer system at a remote location to check the balance on the card and deduct the proper fare.
"In the vast majority of cases, the transaction occurs locally (on the Ventra reader),'' said Matt Cole, executive vice president of strategy and business development at Cubic. "There are a small number of exception cases where a further check to the back office needs to occur.''
He said that about every five minutes the Ventra system updates every reader — on all approximately 1,800 CTA buses, at the CTA's 145 rail stations and on all Pace buses.
Those checks are designed to detect any Ventra transactions that are suspicious, he said.
With employee work cards like Garypie's, which also have chips with identifying information, the internal processing number associated with the card is close enough to that of a credit or debit account that it can potentially trick the system, Steele said.
Invalid Ventra or credit or debit cards are supposed to be put on a "hot list" after they are used to prevent repeated access through the Ventra system, but Garypie was able to use her card on several occasions in a 24-hour period.
Other Ventra users have reported that they were able to use their Ventra cards to board buses and trains despite negative balances on their accounts — another indicator that Ventra's hot list doesn't catch everyone.
After receiving the email from the EPA, federal employee Suzanne King decided to test it herself last Friday.
"I thought this must be a joke, so I tried it at the Adams and Wabash station," said King, a Green Line rider. After seven or eight tries, her federal ID worked, and it continued to allow access Monday evening.
Garypie said she tested her ID at several "L" stations but used her actual Ventra card before passing through the gate after Thursday's free pass. She said she'd be happy to pay the CTA back for the Thursday ride but has not heard from anyone with the agency, despite giving her contact information to a CTA manager.
"It's crazy," Garypie said. "There are thousands of federal workers in Chicago."
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