A ticket to ride?

Stuart Fuller

We’ve discussed the issues surrounding counterfeit tickets in a number of previous articles, as well as how technology has facilitated the ease with which they can be passed to legitimate buyers without their knowledge until they’re refused entry into events.

Print-at-home, QR codes and e-tickets have all significantly reduced the administration costs for the ticket platforms and reduced the risks of tickets being “lost in the post”. However, there are still some daily aspects of life where the technology has not caught up and, more worryingly, there doesn’t appear to be the vigilance to stop it happening.

The BBC recently investigated counterfeit train tickets; it found they could easily be bought online and that they could easily be used. The investigation focused on a group who were selling the tickets on the Dark Web − the hidden network that requires specific software, configurations or authorization to access − for a fraction of the cost of the genuine fare.

The investigators bought two particular tickets, one of which was a monthly pass on the London to Gatwick Airport route at a 66% discount on the standard price. They were able to use them without detection. Although the tickets were not recognized by the ticket barriers, staff manning the pass-through gates allowed the passenger to enter and exit the platforms with just a cursory glance. In total, the investigators used the tickets on 12 occasions without detection.

You only have to try and enter a station platform during the rush hour to see how many passengers have issues with their tickets or travel cards. The magnetic stripes on tickets damage easily − especially if they’re stored in purses and wallets where they come into contact demagnetizing forces such as magnetic clasps, security search machines and even smartphones. With so many passengers therefore needing assistance to pass through the barriers, station staff don’t have time to interrogate each and every ticket. They will check expiry dates and the route validity, but don’t necessarily have the tools to check whether a ticket is actually a forgery.

Take a look at most train tickets and they look pretty standard – a small piece of thin card with thermal printing on. Due to the nature of their purchase and distribution through on-demand ticket machines, there isn’t much opportunity to add the same level of security features such as holograms and intricate laser printing that we see on tickets for, say, a football match. Likewise, for air travel it is quite easily to determine whether a ticket is fake as it must be personalized to the traveler, who in turn must appear on the aircraft manifest. There are no such checking mechanisms on train travel.

The sellers in this instance claim they’re righting a social wrong, telling the BBC that they’re offering an “affordable public service” in response to the train companies’ perceived high pricing strategy.

Rail fraud investigator Mike Keeber said the counterfeit tickets were very convincing, but had tell-tale signs something was wrong with them. It is estimated that rail ticket fraud, which includes people simply not paying for their travel, costs the industry £200 million a year, and whilst the penalties for serial offenders are severe, detection for those holding counterfeit tickets requires investments in technology that will aid the station staff.

That investment in technology has come in some areas that will have an impact on reducing the opportunity for fraud. The Oyster card system in London has been replicated across the world, and allows the transport operators to quickly shut down cards that are identified as stolen; and the significant growth in contactless payment technology means that for many rail users, the days of buying a separate ticket are now long gone. Websites such as Thetrainline.com also facilitate the purchase of discounted rail travel; their business model being simply to help people find the best genuine deals and present them in a clear, understandable way.

Although from time to time train companies do offer special deals that heavily discount certain tickets, the old adage “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” applies to train travel just as it does for any other aspect of our commercial world.