OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) Fastrak helps hundreds of thousands of drivers move across bridges in the Bay Area every day without having to stop to pay the tolls. But KTVU found there are serious problems with the Fastrak toll collection system, and that clearing your name when there's a mistake is no easy task.
Danielle Hill of Concord says she crossed the Carquinez Bridge daily using Fastrak for three years with no problems.
Then in August of 2013, something went haywire with Fastrak. "Months later when I went to... renew my registration, on my vehicle, there was a hold on my registration for $4,550," she said. It was for $420 worth of unpaid tolls, which should have been automatically paid for with her transponder linked account.
"And online, my account was always in good standing," added Hill.
Hill formally disputed the charges. That was denied, and Fastrak added another $1,100 in penalties. She offered to pay the tolls in cash immediately. She was denied. Hill then offered to make payments. "And it was rejected and it came out to be $5,613."
Hill says she was nearly in tears when she asked the Fastrak customer service supervisor what she could do. The answer she says she got was shocking, and highly inappropriate. "You should look into bankruptcy."
That's what Hill did, spending another $5,000 in legal fees for Fastrak fees and penalties that she says were not her fault. John Goodwin of the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA), which oversees Fastrak, acknowledges customer service suggested bankruptcy to Hill.
But he adds they had already cut Hill a break for previous late payments. Hill denies that. "Our interest is not in punishing customers, our interest is not in collecting violations penalties, our interest is only really in collecting the tolls," said Goodwin.
He says there are 125 million transactions on the seven state owned bridges every year. "We execute over 99.9 percent of those transactions flawlessly," he says.
The remaining one tenth of one percent works out to 125,000 bad transactions per year or 342 mistakes every day. Most are caused by Fastrak cameras misreading license plates.
But that's not what happened to Ticey Mays Williams of Oakland. "When you think you're getting ahead, here comes something else to knock you down," she said.
Williams is loaded down with Fastrak invoices for trips across the Bay Bridge. Trips that she never took.
"I don't use Fastrak, I don't go across the bridge." In fact, she doesn't even own the car that was charged. "I got some Fastrak tickets about four or five months after I gave the car back. Or they took the car. And I'm like what's going on with this," Williams asks.
She lost the car in April 2014 to repossession. Then in late September, the Fastrak invoices started arriving.
Williams has repeatedly worked with Fastrak and the DMV to show that the car was no longer hers. "If I have the proof and I am sending it to you all, and y'all telling me you not getting it, now that's something else. It seems like now you all just trying to get me. And it upsets me."
John Goodwin from BATA says computers are stupid. "Because, in order to keep costs down, we rely so much on automated systems, sometimes things like this will happen."
But when things like this happen, they can create nightmares for people like Danielle Hill and Ticey Mays Williams. "Very frequently, when a negotiated settlement is reached, it's just on the tolls only and penalties will be waived," says Goodwin.
Hill and Williams don't see it that way. "I don't have a good thing to say about them, because they put me in financial ruin," said Hill. "It's just stressful because they're talking about that they're going to put it on my credit report. Reporting it to the credit bureau. And I don't need that," added Williams.
It's worth noting that the Better Business Bureau gives Bay Area Fastrak a rating of 'F.' Meanwhile, there's a website called Sue-Easy which lists one complaint about Fastrak after another.
The Bay Area Toll Authority acknowledges that the Fastrak customer service has serious problems - and there is a long term effort underway to make it more helpful and more efficient.
Since KTVU started looking into it, Fastrak officials say they have dropped the mistaken charges against Williams' name.