“Give me $20. I just added $20 to your card.”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Eric P.

“Dear PoPville,

About 4 PM I stopped by the Columbia Heights metro to add value to my smart card. There were the usual machines out of order or flashing messages like NO BILLS or NO CHANGE but I spotted one that looked like it was working okay. So I touched my card to the machine and started to put in a $20 bill when a man standing on my right said “Don’t put that bill in.” As I turned to him he slipped a metro card into the machine and I saw my total value jump $20 as the man said “Touch your card again.” I did so and the value was added to my card. This was all a bit confusing until the man said “Give me $20. I just added $20 to your card.”

That seemed undeniable and I did have $20 in my hand but being suspicious I asked the man if he was with Metro. He said he was and asked me if I wanted to add more value to my card. That’s when I saw he had several paper Metro cards in his hand. I gave him the money but decided not to add any more to my card. Instead I went over to the station manager’s booth and asked if there was something wrong with the fare card machines. When they said “No” I told them what had happened and asked them to check the value on my card. The $20 was there. Another metro employee in the booth said I was lucky and asked if the man I talked to was wearing a metro uniform. (He wasn’t).

So maybe he had real metro cards he was trying to sell or maybe they were faked or stolen cards.

Anyway just a new one on me and I wonder if anyone else has had this experience.”

33 Comment

  • Yes, he was using you to convert metro credits to cash. Who knows where he got the cards.

    • Totally agreed. I would not have touched my card again but just walked away and talked to the station manager. Completely creepy and could have turned out bad. I’m sorry you had this experience.

    • My wife had her purse stolen around U street, and the first thing they did was go to metro and buy $200 worth of fare cards. I’d suspect that this is the end result of something similar.

  • Could be stolen but could be something more benign too. Like you’ll often see farecards on Craigslist where people are selling a $150 card for $100 or whatever. Always seemed like that’s a pretty decent arbitrage opportunity.

  • Sounds to me like he used a stolen credit card to purchase a bunch of $20 paper cards and was waiting for someone with cash to trade them.

  • No, it was not a scam, he did add $20 to your card. But, yes, those MetroCheck cards or whatever he used were maybe stolen or otherwise obtained through a different scam. So you’re maybe an accessory to theft, maybe once removed. Hooray? Sometimes people with a ton of extra Metro benefits that they don’t use will sell them for pennies on the dollar just to get the cash that would otherwise be tied up in Metrocards. In that case this guy just made his margin on the discount sale.

  • I would have just walked about $20 richer. You didn’t ask him to do that but he did anyway

    • justinbc

      +1, yeah, this guy is surely doing something outside the intended bounds of the system, but that doesn’t mean you owe him anything.

      • +1. Also wouldn’t want to be put in a position where I somehow received stolen funds though…

  • I would have told him that, since I didn’t ask for him to to put $20 on my card, his action could legally be interpreted as a gift, but if he’d like to ask the police for their opinion, I’d be happy to wait while he makes the call.

  • I had my wallet stolen recently. When I called to cancel my credit and debit cards, each one had been charged $200 at the nearest Metro station, presumably on fare cards. I thought that was kind of odd — re-selling fare cards seems like it would be challenging, since I imagine most buyers would be skeptical of the value of the card (since any fare-card-selling situation is sketchy). Now I know how it works!!

    • Yep, this happened to me too. The police said it’s the most common charge…usually within 5 minutes of a wallet being missing and usually ~$200.

    • People always want a deal. It’s too easy to sell them if you’re giving a good price. You certainly can’t track the cards once they’ve been used.

    • It would seem like this is a good way to catch the thief. If you could trace the other credit cards that had been used to charge that particular smart trip, perhaps the thief had at some point used their own credit card? If they only used stolen ones or cash to charge their smart trip it wouldn’t work obviously, but you’d think they could trace your card to a smart trip to other credit cards used on that smart trip? Maybe too much effort and resources to catch a purse snatcher.

      • I’d imagine thieves would use stolen credit cards to buy paper farecards (as in this scenario), since those can’t be traced — it would be a dumb thief who’d use a stolen credit card to top up his/her SmarTrip card, especially if the card is registered.

  • Allison

    One of the many reasons I always refill my fare card online now (if my transit subsidy is insufficient) — there are just too many sketchy people hanging around the fare machines begging for money, eyeing my wallet, etc. for me to go near them anymore.

    • Same. And even though people say not to refill on the bus because sometimes it eats your money, I do and I can vouch that WMATA sorted out my one-time money-eating issue within a day, and that no one harasses you for cash on the bus. At least not the ones I’ve taken.

  • cards-to-cash. You can have this kind of black market with anything that has value. If I were metro, I’d check to see if someone has access to a fare machine and check to see if they have an overage margin they’re approaching the limit on.

  • I’ve been approached at CH metro when adding more to my card. Something like I’ll give you fifty dollars for twenty? I said no thanks and just completed the transaction normally, but I don’t think this is unheard of there.

  • its just a variant of the old scam of take a paper card, cut it into 5, then trade it in

    People been doing it for 30 years, which is why wmata wants out of paper

  • Slightly off-topic but related question:
    I have several paper fare cards with like 75 cents left on them. Does this mean I can cash them in and add that value to my smartcard? They’re not valuable enough to make it worth using them (given the $1 surcharge for paper cards), but added together it’s a few bucks I could avoid throwing away.

    • Yes, you can. Tap your smartcard then feed the paper card in and transfer it. That is what this guy here did to OP.

      I dropped my SmartCard once and it was gone in seconds and then when I looked at the history on it, someone had taken it to the RI Ave Metro and transferred the amount onto another card (unsure if it was paper or not, but my guess is paper so it could not be traced).

      So while you may make out just fine and it is not a scam for you, your willingness to trade cash for it only encourages theft.

    • I tried to do that once (one of the cards had like $15 on it before it got demagnetized) and mailed all of them to the WMATA address I was directed to. Never received so much as an acknowledgement, much less having the value of them added to my smartcard.

      • I did this once, sent in a bunch of paper fare cards, and although it took about six months, they did finally send me back a credit, I forget if it was a new fare card or a new Smartrip or how they did it. By the time I received it, I had completely forgotten about the paper cards. So, not sure if this is a checkmark for WMATA being good at their jobs, but at least not a total ripoff?

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