The Rental Car Traffic Violation Scam Hypothesis and Personal Privacy

vintage photo of driver being ticketed by police officer
vintage photo of driver being ticketed by police officer (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I got a ticket in the mail yesterday for running a red light. Well, it wasn’t a ticket, exactly. It was a “notice of an administrative fee” for a red light violation that allegedly happened while I was driving a rented car in my mom’s town the day before her birthday. The ticket itself apparently hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet, but the rental car company has a whole operation to process the administrative fees from traffic violations incurred by their renters, and they’re not wasting any time collecting theirs.

I bring this up here because it’s actually happened to me quite a lot. Nearly every time I rent a car, I end up getting a traffic ticket in the mail a few months later (and as a consultant and speaker who often travels to clients and events, I rent a lot of cars). You may be tempted to joke that I’m a terrible driver, but these traffic violations by mail never showed up when I was driving my own car and the discrepancy has become enough of a pattern that my mind, not usually given to conspiracy theories, started to formulate a hypothesis about how this could be part of a program to make money off of car renters.

Anatomy of a Scam Hypothesis

How could this be happening? Well, the rental car agencies could be selling their driver rental information to the companies that operate the traffic cameras. The traffic cameras could be scanning license plates and matching them against a list from the rental agencies. They could be issuing tickets on violations or close-enough-to-be-violations only when there’s a match.

I also notice that I never get more than one traffic violation per rental. The system could be set to throttle the tickets to one per rental period. Casual renters wouldn’t think much about it. “Oh well,” they’d think, “I got a ticket. I’ll just pay.”

But frequent renters, like me, start to notice a pattern. Why is it I owned a car all my adult life until late last year, drove all over the country, frequently taking my car on road trips, and have never once been issued a traffic-camera-ticket for any of those trips, yet when I drive in some of these same towns in a rental car, I get tickets mailed to me?

“Maybe It’s Just You”

Perhaps you’re skeptical, as we discuss this over drinks, and you offer that maybe instead of this elaborate scam, there’s instead a behavioral science element to all this: suppose we all drive a little more recklessly when we’re in a rented car. That seems a reasonable counter-hypothesis, I’d concede with a tip of my beer mug, but without supporting data or a compelling argument to convince me that there might be truth to this, I maintain that, whether I own the car or borrow it, I drive as I drive. And pass the peanuts.

Anyway, What About Due Process?

Most of all, whether the intent to conspire is there or not, surely it brings up questions of due process. If a police officer had simply pulled me over in each of these places, there’d be far less question of legitimacy. You say I ran a red light? Pull me over right then. The action on which the claim is based will be fresh in my head and I can either challenge the officer (calmly and politely, of course) about the veracity of the claim or accept the ticket. (Or cry, and maybe get off with a warning. Oh, relax; I’m kidding.) But you say I ran a red light three months after the fact? I barely recall being at the intersection in question, let alone what the conditions of the intersection were, or the timing of the light, or the layout of the traffic around me. Even if you were to furnish me with photographic evidence of my rented car with me in it clearly violating a red light, I still don’t have the consideration of context, and I get no due process at all.

The Bigger Issue: Privacy, Personal Rights, and Public Data

I don’t necessarily believe my conspiracy hypothesis about the rental car traffic violation scam; I just think it’s possible, and at the rate I get these tickets, I admit I’m a tad suspicious. But I’m less concerned with that and more conscious of the the bigger issue: how vulnerable people are and increasingly will be to schemes that take advantage of ever-present tracking data, surveillance, and systems with default authority, such as rental car companies and traffic enforcement bureaus. Even if these entities aren’t trying to be exploitative, the more access they have to integrated data about our movements and behaviors, the greater the potential will be for them to overstep the authority we think we’ve granted them.

So why do I share this half-baked conspiracy idea anyway? Because the premise is not mere science fiction; it’s certainly not impossible, and it’s important that we remind ourselves regularly of the powerful data about people that can be used by companies and government. That power is growing, and to a great degree, it’s already out of our hands as citizens, consumers, patients, and the public. So where and when we can, it’s important that we think critically about what the implications are, and it’s important for those of us who work in and around data systems that track human actions to be mindful of what that means.

Meanwhile, to finish on a lighter note, here’s how comedian Joe Lycett handled a mailed-in notice of a parking ticket. Enjoy.

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