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Using Analytics to Spot Fraudulent Use of Disabled Parking

New Fraud-Detection-as-a-Service continues to “learn” over time, uncovering the latest and emerging methods of fraud.

A new high-tech platform designed to reduce disabled parking permit and placard fraud could allow states and municipalities to crack down on criminals who are abusing the system. 

Though there is currently no national system tracking the use of fraudulent accessible parking decals, making it difficult to measure the full extent of the problem, increases in placard issuance and use of placards in several cities indicate fraud may be on the rise. A survey recently conducted in Portland, Ore., for example, found that placard use in the downtown area had increased 72 percent in the last five years. In California, one in every 10 drivers is issued a placard, with 2.5 million placards currently in use.

“Evidence certainly exists that there is a problem with accessible parking placard fraud, and that the issue needs to be addressed,” said Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Seeking to address the problem, Pondera Solutions recently launched what it says is the first system in the nation specifically designed to help detect and prevent disabled parking permit fraud. 

“This is a major problem,” said Jon Coss, CEO of Pondera Solutions. “Go to any city in America and chances are you will see someone fraudulently using a disabled person parking placard.” 

Disabled parking permits and placards can carry a high street value, particularly in large cities where parking is at a premium, driving the potential for fraud and abuse. 

“If you can go to the financial district in San Francisco and park all day without feeding a meter, that carries a high value for some people,” said Coss. “That in turn might encourage someone to invent a scheme where you can steal an identity and get multiple placards and sell them on the street.”

Pondera’s Fraud Detection as a Service (FDaaS), a Google-powered, cloud-based analytics solution, combines technical intelligence with department data to quickly identify suspicious and collusive activities -- it's designed to sift through massive data sets to identify and alert state and local agencies to problems that require follow-up investigation. The system examines data, such as information on who is receiving placards, and validates that data against third-party data sources.  

“We’re looking for obvious things like placards being distributed to people who live out of state, to people who are deceased, or multiple placards going to the same person or to the same address,” said Coss, adding that a number of procedural rules are also fed into the system in order to conduct peer analysis, either on the provider side or the beneficiary side. 

“We can look at things like, based on the provider type -- chiropractor, general practitioner, etc. -- in a specific geography, how many disabled person parking placards would they normally issue in a 12-month period? If that provider suddenly issues 400 percent of their norm, something probably needs to be looked into.”

Similar analyses can be conducted on the beneficiary side, examining such things as the average number of replacement cards issued.

“If someone is at 500 percent of the average, they are either very forgetful or it’s possible they might be profiting from trafficking these things,” Coss said. 

Because FDaaS uses machine learning and Google’s geospatial mapping technology, it continues to “learn” over time, uncovering new and emerging methods of fraud. Any data anomalies, suspicious activities, potential collusion, trends, clusters, patterns or changes over time are validated using experts in the field to determine any potentially legitimate reason behind the unusual data patterns. If no legitimate reasons are found, the suspicious findings are passed back to the client via a dashboard.  

“Whomever we’re working with who is in charge of enforcement would basically log onto the dashboard in the morning and see alerts with narratives informing them of any issues that we found,” said Coss. “We also use geospatial maps that show those anomalies in a visual way.”

The Pondera system does not prove fraud. It simply reports indicators of it. The state or local agencies would follow up on the information.

Ultimately, the system is designed to safeguard resources intended for those who are truly in need of disabled parking spaces.

“When someone abuses accessible parking, they make it more difficult for people with legitimate disabilities to find the parking they need to participate in society,” said Perriello. “They also increase the stigmatization of people with disabilities, by creating a climate where all use of accessible parking is called into question.”

“There are lots of different types of fraud, but in my opinion, this is one of the most insidious forms; maybe not in terms of financials, but in the impact on the community,” said Coss. 

In the long run, disabled parking permit fraud and abuse hurts the disabled population, Perriello said. 

“The black market for accessible decals in cities like San Francisco leaves people with legitimate disabilities out in the cold, and unable to find the parking they need in order to participate in the activities that most others take for granted like going to the grocery store or to the movies,” he said. “Putting in place systems that reduce fraud and abuse is something all states and municipalities should consider.”

In Portland, officials say they're using a “market based system” to crack down on fraud cases, but there's no technology involved. Simply stated, there was a shortage of spaces before, but there are now more. The city had no comment on Pondera since it is not yet familiar with it, but officials are not planning to use such a solution. And in San Francisco, a disabled parking audit will be released sometime this month, but details aren't yet available, according to a city official, who could not speak to whether the FDaaS solution is a viable option for the jurisdiction.

But a number of jurisdictions are, in fact, considering implementation of the new system, Coss said, and Pondera is in discussions with them right now. The company, he added, hopes to be in production with one or more of them by the end of 2014.

“The reason we’re doing this is that there are cities trying to find ways to fix this problem, and the methods that have been used in the past to try to crack down on fraud oftentimes penalize disabled people in one way or another,” said Coss. “If we can knock the bad actors out of the system and make sure that the people who really need these placards are the ones that are issued them and use them, that’s going to be better for everybody."

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at
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