Pay up, pay up

On Monday night a woman I've never met called me up and told me I owed her company $495. I said she was mistaken but she was adamant. Not only did I owe the money, I'd owed it since 1995.

On Monday night a woman I’ve never met called me up and told me I owed her company $495. I said she was mistaken but she was adamant. Not only did I owe the money, I’d owed it since 1995. Not only had I owed her the money since then, but if I didn’t pay the money would be taken directly from my pay. Needless to say, I refused to pay. She threatened and cajoled and finally gave me a number in Hamilton to ring. I called the next day and got rid of them by agreeing to pay $200 even though I knew I didn’t owe it.

Shocking, isn’t it? Perhaps it shocks you less than it shocked me, or perhaps you’re shocked that I actually paid up.

The company in question wasn’t actually a company, I must admit. It was the Department of Courts and it seems I’ve had three parking tickets outstanding since 1995. Apparently it can take years for them to find your name in the phone book and give you a call. In that time you accrue court costs and something called an enforcement fee - which is just a hoot when it seems they don’t bother enforcing it for so long.

The sad story began when I was but a student. I was a BA student in Hamilton and I was a ratbag. I had a Mazda 323, a road-cone orange four-door hatchback. Horrible thing it was — the switch for the headlights was on an arm I’d always knock as I got out, leaving me with a flat battery on my return. I learned to drive in it, and it really looked like a beginner’s car. I’d backed it into a truck (don’t ask), so its original colour was dotted with islands of bog grey. Eventually it failed its WOF and so I came back to it one evening in a carpark to discover a ticket for $150 on it. Add that to a couple more parking tickets and wait five years, and just like that you owe nearly $500.

The thing is, I know I paid the damn things back then. I remember getting the WOF ticket and I know that I was feeling rather flush with cash and so wrote them a nice cheque. Well, it was either that or I paid my rent that week — this was around the time student fees went up, student jobs went south and the banks called in every student account in the country. There are a number of bankers out there who should flush red with shame every time they hear the word “student”. You know who you are. Don’t even get me started.

When I told her I’d paid the tickets she asked if I had a receipt. Yes, once. I kept it for ages and ages, using it as a book mark. It disappeared years ago. Too bad, she said. Then she made the most outrageous statement I’ve heard in ages.

“If you’d paid the ticket it would have dropped off the system. It’s still there so you still owe it.”

How circular is that? I have a fine on the system, therefore I haven’t paid it. I argued, saying I had and was there no record at all? I know computer systems are infallible and all that, but perhaps a human had miskeyed the information?

That was not possible. It was suggested I might like to contact my bank and get a printout for “some time in 1995" to prove I had paid the tickets, then they could match the cheque with their records. I rang the bank instead. I’d switched banks as soon as I started making money and the branch I was at has closed — all paper records have been archived and it would cost about $50 an hour for someone to go through them. I’d vowed never to give those bastards any more money so I declined.

Finally Courts agreed to waive the fees and hit me up for just the original fines, which I reluctantly paid. They couldn’t show me the original tickets, they couldn’t tell me what tickets I’d paid, they couldn’t tell me when I’d paid them. All they could tell me was I owed $495 and I had to pay immediately.

This is nonsense. When I pointed out that the fine was five years old, she told me they had some going back for 10 years, if not longer. If you can’t find someone for a parking ticket in that time it should be wiped. And as for a system that deletes paid bills, that’s just plain stupid. Memory’s cheap — buy some.

I paid my tickets with my credit card. At least I get air points for it. Oh, and I’m keeping the receipt forever.

Paul Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send him your parking fine stories at paul_brislen@idg.co.nz

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