Some Southern California drivers are being hit with fines of tens – even hundreds -- of thousands of dollars because of toll road billing disputes with the Orange County Transportation Authority.
One Canyon Lake woman told the NBC4 I-Team that excessive penalties for unpaid fees left her on the hook for more than $15,000.
Commuter Leslie Vecchione, who takes the 91 Freeway, says it all started in 2010, when FasTrak informed her that she owed $340 in delinquent toll fees. Because the credit card she had on file with FasTrak had been hacked, she says she called to cancel the old account, and provide a new card number to take care of the debt.
"I called FasTrak, and I gave them all my new banking information and they said they had it," Vecchione said.
She believes the information was never processed.
In the following weeks, she noticed her credit card account was no longer recording any charges from FasTrak, but the toll transponder was still beeping each time she drove the car on the 91 Freeway.
Vecchione says she called OCTA again, and was told the problem could be a simple delay in transferring to her new account.
At the end of the month, she received a $3,000 bill. She says she tried to negotiate a settlement with OCTA, but "there really is no opportunity to talk to anybody and get it resolved."
Hoping the charge would be dismissed, she put off paying, but kept on driving. Each time she or a family member commuted on the 91 Freeway, the tolls were accumulating, along with fines assessed under the California Vehicle Code. Each violation earned a penalty of $190.
In February, Vecchione learned that OCTA was preparing to sue her $15,410.40 in tolls, penalties and fines. She was given 30 days to respond, and warned that if she didn’t, judgment would be "entered against you without trial or hearing."
At this point, she turned to Orange County attorney Roger Buffington, who’s represented more than 70 clients like Vecchione in cases against OCTA.
"Judgment can be entered against them without any other due process and that is unusual under American and Californian law," Buffington said.
He adds that Vecchione’s bill is far from the largest he’s seen.
"We’ve handled cases where people have had cumulative charges as high as $350,000," he said.
OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik told the I-Team he could not discuss specific cases, but he did say notices are commonly sent to a customer’s address for each violation.
If outstanding tolls and penalties reach $5,000, the case is sent to collections attorneys and a notice of intent to sue for the money is sent to the customer.
"They want it to build to as big as it can get and then they’ll try to deal with you," Vecchione said.
In 2009, the Orange County Toll Authority and the Transportation Corridor Agencies agreed to waive $41 million in commuter penalties, and pay $1.4 million in restitution, to settle a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of people who say they were charged excessive penalties for toll violations.
Since the I-team’s investigation of Vecchione’s case began, she’s reached a settlement with OCTA for $4,500. But she blames OCTA’s original error in not charging her new credit card for putting her on a costly five year journey.
"I’d be happy to pay my $340. You know, it’s been a big mistake and it wasn’t even my mistake, but I’m paying for it," said Vecchione.
If you have any discrepancy in your FasTrak billing, here are some tips:
- Stop using toll lanes until the problem is resolved.
- Act promptly. Contact OCTA (or the agency overseeing the toll road you use) immediately to request an inquiry into your bill.
- Regularly check your email "junk" folder for communication from OCTA or other toll agencies.
- Make sure you receive confirmation in writing if any error has been corrected.