UPDATED October 12, 2010 5:39 p.m
CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) - It’s one thing for motorists to vandalize Chicago parking meters to vent their anger over the steep schedule of rate hikes tied to the 75-year, $1.15 billion deal that privatized the city’s 36,000 meters. It’s quite another to abscond with the entire pay-and-display box.
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The Chicago Police Department is investigating a rash of recent thefts of the 200-pound pay-and-display boxes installed across the city to replace individual meters and make it unnecessary for motorists to stuff their pockets with quarters.
“There have been approximately 20 [boxes] taken, of which four have been recovered,” said Police Department spokesman Roderick Drew in an e-mail. All of the thefts have happened since Sept. 17.
“The thefts have occurred citywide, with nearly half in the Area 5. Area 5 detectives have been working with LAZ Parking [the private parking meter operator] to address this issue. Residents who witness vandalism or suspicious behavior should call police immediately. It is not known how much may have been taken from the stolen pay boxes.”
Police Area 5, or the Grand Central Area, includes the Northwest Side and parts of the West Side.
“When I went over to put my money in the box, there was no box. The whole thing was gone. The base was gone. All you saw was concrete,” said Wylie Rogers.
The meter box has since been replaced, but residents are still impressed that thieves even took the bolts.
“That’s pretty heavy. It’s almost unbelievable that it was taken. Somebody must have come with a van. It must have been more than one person,” said Elida Cruz.
Those who routinely use their credit card are concerned about security.
“We have no knowledge of how it’s being used, or if we’re at risk for our accounts to be taken advantage of and monies taken,” said Beverly Rogers.
But motorists who used credit cards to pay for parking at 20 pay-and-display boxes later yanked out of the ground and stolen should not lose sleep about credit card fraud, Chicago’s embattled parking meter contractor said Tuesday.
One day after the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed the rash of thefts, Chicago Parking Meters LLC moved to reassure motorists concerned that their credit card information might have been stolen along with the boxes.
Avis LaVelle, a former mayoral press secretary now serving as spokesperson for Chicago Parking Meters LLC, said the boxes that allow motorists to pay for parking with credit cards meet industry standards for processing, storing and transmitting credit card information in a “secure environment.”
“Credit card information is transmitted directly to the financial institution. CPM does not retain or store the data, except for the last four digits of your credit card, which is very similar to any other credit card transaction,” LaVelle said in a written statement.
“Retaining the last four digits of the credit card enables CPM to provide better customer service in case there is a problem with the pay box and a refund is necessary.”
The bottom line is that motorists who use credit cards to pay for parking have “nothing to fear,” LaVelle said.
“If you have the last four numbers of someone’s credit card, there is no way you can compromise that person’s card,” she said.
LaVelle noted that pay-and-display boxes — each weighing 200 pounds — are bolted to the ground and that they don’t store much cash because most motorists now pay for their parking with credit cards.
“I don’t know why anybody would do this. I can’t put myself in the mindset of the person or persons. All I know is it’s a felony and it will be treated as such,” she said.
Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis said he, too, was surprised by the great pay-box caper.
“They are kind of big and bulky. I am kind of surprised someone would take those, but it’s a crime so we will investigate it,” said Weis.
But it’s a crime where the thieves are getting some sympathy.
“We’re really sad it’s back. I didn’t pay yesterday. I put my money back in my pocket and said I ain’t gotta pay,” said Rogers.
The boxes have been a sore spot with consumers ever since the city privatized the meters, which led to higher rates and fewer free parking spots.
“I think it was Robinhood coming to help the people, Robinhood saving the people from tickets,” said Shirley Fields.
The parking meter deal has been a political nightmare for Mayor Richard M. Daley and aldermen who granted lightning-fast approval of the deal. Steep rate increases that forced drivers to stuff their pockets with quarters would have been bad enough. But broken and frozen pay-and-display boxes — there are some 3,000 citywide — and overstuffed and improperly calibrated meters that overcharged motorists made it even worse.
In the months after the rate increases, some motorists were so angry they vandalized and boycotted meters, leading to a dramatic drop in on-street parking.
In March 2009, CBS 2 interviewed Mike of The Expired Meter blog, who showed of meters that had been deliberately smashed, taken apart, spray-painted, or deliberately jammed.
“People suggest taking a quarter, putting some super glue on it, and putting it in the coin slot,” Mike said at the time.
So if you come across a missing pay box, do you still have to pay?
According to customer service at LAZ, you should. If you don’t, according to the representative, you might get a parking ticket. The service rep said you should walk to next block and get a receipt so you can display it.
But she didn’t deny that you would have a good chance of fighting the ticket if you took a picture of the missing box, took a picture of your car in front of the missing box and showed it to the judge.
Since the initial outrage, parking meter revenues have since recovered nicely, but the equipment nightmare apparently continues for the private contractor.
CBS 2′s Dorothy Tucker, Newsradio 780′s Bernie Tafoya, and the Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this report, via the Sun-Times Media Wire