Getting a parking ticket sucks, and the easiest way to put one out of your mind might be to pay it as soon as possible—a fact scammers are taking advantage of using fake tickets that trick you into making payments for violations you weren’t actually cited for.
According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the scams involve tickets printed with QR codes that take you not to the legit payment site for your municipality, but to a dummy site that only approximates the real thing. When victims pay the citations, they’re not just giving up their money, but their personal information—which puts them at further risk.
How the parking ticket scam works
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Scammers stake out a busy street, waiting for a potential victim to park nearby—maybe someone who double parks while running into a store, for example. They will use a hand-held device to print out an entirely official-looking parking ticket and stick it on your windshield. The fake ticket includes a QR code that purports to offer you a convenient way to pay the violation, but actually redirects you to payment website that, if used, will deliver your money and personal information directly to the scammer. Never mind the fact that you weren’t actually cited for a violation in the first place!
In the absence of a QR code, the ticket might direct you to a payment site that will accept peer-to-peer payments. Other victims have reported treceiving emails notifying them of pending parking tickets, with a reminder to pay lest they face stiffer fines or other consequences, but clicking on the payment link could potentially cause you to download malware, warns the BBB.
How to spot a fake parking ticket
If you’re confident you committed no infractions in your parking, but still received a citation, that should be red flag number one. Remember, you can always dispute any parking violation, and a citation should list exactly what law or rule you broke to warrant being written a ticket. If the violation listed doesn’t make sense, you might have a fake ticket in your hands.
Most parking citations will take you to an official city website to process your payment. If the citation asks you to pay with a peer-to-peer app like Venmo, Zelle, PayPal or something similar, it’s a scam.
Because there is no jurisdiction on private parking lots, if you receive a citation in one of them—in a retail store’s parking lot or stadium parking, for example—that’s also a warning sign. Most private lots will tow you or “boot” your wheel instead. While some private lots can issue a citation, it’s rare, so if you’re coming back from a game or from shopping and see a ticket on your windshield, be suspicious.
Regardless of why you got theticket, you should always double check the organization citing you, and contact them directly through their official website, not by calling the number listed on the ticket or by following a QR code. Ask if the ticket in your hands is legit, and if it’s not, report it.
Best practices to avoid ticket scams
The BBB recommends the following:
- Research available parking and local parking requirements. Tourists and vehicles with out-of-state licenses are usually targeted because they are assumed to not know about the local parking laws.
- Examine the citation carefully. Google the city’s official parking ticket website and compare it to what’s on the ticket. Are the logos the same? Are the phone numbers and the URL the same? Government sites should end in a .gov., and payments sites should always start with “HTTPS,” which indicates the site is secure.
- Check the recipient if you’re given the option to pay with a check. Some tickets will give you the option to pay with a check. This can be a good litmus test to see if the ticket is fake: Checks should generally be made to a specific government organization, not a string of initials or a person’s name.
- Always pay with a credit card. Paying with a credit card gives you the assurance that if a payment is fraudulent, the bank will give you your money back. Payments made with a with peer-to-peer app, debit, cash, or check are almost always impossible to recover.
What to do if you think you’ve been a victim of a fake parking ticket
The best thing to do—other than not paying it, obviously—is report it to the BBB at BBB Scam Tracker. While you might not necessarily get your money back if you did already submit a payment (unless you paid with a credit card), your report can help others learn about common scam tactics and avoid them in the future.