That parking ticket could be a scam

Got a parking ticket on your windshield, or a notice in the mail, when you thought you were parking legally? Investigate before you pay, said Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and author of “How to be the World’s Smartest Traveler.”

A long-time scam involving fake parking tickets is revving up, thanks to cheap and sophisticated hand-held printers that can make fake tickets appear real. Elliott, who invites defrauded consumers to complain on his website, said numerous consumers have contacted him about suspicious tickets. Scam sites like Snopes and DefensiveDriving.com are also warning about fake citations.

This ruse is even being reported in the U.K., where hundreds of consumers reportedly received emails about unpaid tickets. Snopes reported that emailed “parking violations bureau” notices are likely aimed at downloading malware on your computer. Don’t click on the attachment.

“There is a certain arbitrariness about parking tickets, and scammers take advantage of that,” said Elliott. “You get a ticket on your windshield, and you’re likely to just pay it.”

People with out-of-state plates are at particular risk, he noted. That’s because they’re not likely to stick around to dispute a parking ticket or even know how a local municipality handles its citations. Thus, when a tourist gets a citation that suggests you pay online or via PayPal, he or she might not pick up on the red flag, Elliott said.

It’s impossible to really know why this scam might be getting more popular, he added. But with handheld-printers selling for less than $300, the con artists’ job is getting increasingly simple. BarcodeFactory.com, for instance, is marketing a lightweight handheld printer for just $298. The thermal printout is likely to look a lot like the parking tickets issued by city-operated machinery.

Still, there are tell-tale signs that your ticket might not be legit. One is that you’re simply parked in an area that appears legal. A consumer who contacted Elliott says she now takes a photograph whenever she parks on a city street, just to verify that she wasn’t double-parked or in a handicapped space or red zone. Then, regardless of whether the ticket was fraudulent or just unreasonable, she feels confident in fighting it.

Additionally, city parking authorities typically accept checks that are made out to the city -- not an alphabet soup meant to look like the initials of a government agency.

Government entities do offer payment options on their websites. However you should expect a government site to end in a .gov designation. And when you get to the payment portal, you should see “https:” -- the signal of a secure site -- in the address bar and have the option to pay by credit card.

New parking apps may also help consumers avoid legitimate tickets. ParkMobile and SpotHero, for instance, operate phone-based parking services that let you to pay for metered parking or find reasonably priced parking lots in big cities.

A relatively new, but growing industry also helps fight parking tickets, said Elliott. However, most companies in it are available only in a few select cities, such as New York and San Francisco.

© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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