Monday, November 15, 2010

Is NTTA Scam Is Paying Off?

In a previous blog post titled "NTTA Put to the Test..." I asserted that despite a relatively constant  toll road transaction volume that the revenue would remain at the nearly doubled level or worse yet increase compared to previous years.  My hypothesis was that the increased revenue is derived primarily by increasing toll violations through prolonging the automated toll collection process.

The NTTA has provided a new report for investors ( that shows an estimation of the 2010 transaction and revenue volumes.  Lets look at the numbers presented in this report.

It does appear that the overall transaction volume has increased slightly since the end of 2009. However, the transaction level throughout 2010 seems relatively constant.

Now lets look at the revenue side of the equation.  Unfortunately for toll road users, the story appears to be the same.  The revenue is roughly double what it was before the NTTA implemented its new automated Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) booths and correspondingly the potentially fraudulent invoice and collections program (a.k.a. Scam).
It will be interesting to read the final report to see if the numbers are consistent with these projections.

Before closing, the following stories seem to substantiate that the NTTA's scam carries on through 2010.

Woman Slams NTTA for Arrest Warrant over Tolls
* Unpaid Tollway Authority bills can land you in jail
* The NTTA machine and me
* Tolls to Warrants
* NTTA Complaints - Zip cash


QuiBids: A LottoAuction Gambling Frenzy!

Perhaps you have seen banner ADs from QuiBids showing the absolutely amazing deals like those found in the advertisement to the right.

Wow!  67% to 90% off Apple products.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

I decided to dive into this "Penny Auction" service to learn more about how it works.  My summation of the whole experience is that it is a frenzy driven LottoAuction with a gambling twist.  In addition there appears to be clear deception in QuiBids advertising and representation of product value as well.

Lets look at a real auction that I watched over the weekend to see what we can learn.  Click on the Apple iPads 16GB Wi-Fi auction below to see the full view of this screen capture.

There are several note worthy items to glean from this screen capture and what the data implies.
The advertised value of the 16GB Wi-Fi iPad listed in this auction is $699.  However, Apple lists the advertised price as of the 16GB Wi-Fi iPad for just $499.  This is blatant fraud or misrepresentation at best.
The caption below the picture of the iPad says that this item was "Recently sold for $0.94".  I went back through the history of iPad's sold and the lowest auction close price that I found from the data that was available online was $47.83.  $47.83 is quite a bit off from $.94.  Again, fraud or just misrepresenting what is "Recent".  See spreadsheet below that lists all if the iPad auctions available through QuiBit's search feature.

Note from the spreadsheet as well that the amount that you pay for the auctioned item is the Auction Closing price PLUS your bid amount.  For example, the very best deal from this spreadsheet was where the Auction Closed for $48.83.  However, the winner had to pay that price, plus the sum of his bids which was $25.80  Add into that the $15.99 shipping and the grand total cost to the winner is $89.62.  That is certainly a great deal for an iPad.

If you didn't win the auction, you can use the "Buy it Now" feature which gives you the opportunity to preserve your bid investment by paying the difference between what you bid and the retail price of the iPad.  In this case, you would pay something less than $699 which is $200 more than the actual retail value of the product as listed by the manufacture.  Also, you have to buy bids up front at a cost of $0.60 per bid to participate in the auctions.

If you bid on the product but elected not to buy the product now, you forfeit all bids invested into the auction.  If no one used the "Buy it Now" option for the data that I collected, then the average amount forfeited by bidders per auction for the data that I collected was approximately $5,918.28.  That is a pretty good profit margin for selling a $499 iPad.

This begs the question, what is the "break-even" Auction Close amount required to meet the cost of the $699 iPad?  The answer is simple.  Take the cost of the item and divide it by the bid price divided by 100.  This gives a rough break-even Auction Close amount of $699/$0.60/100 =~ $12.

While researching this topic, I saw several suspicions of QuiBit using bots to artificially stimulate the bidding process in order to drive up the bidding.  While watching a a few bids, I could neither confirm or deny this.  One thing was clear though, there is often a frenzy of bids near the end of the auction.

One last item to be warned about is that none of the iPads that I saw could be returned if there was any issues.  It is up to you to verify that the iPad functions properly before the shipper leaves your home.

The key takeaway from this article is that while you may be able to get a good buy through QuiBids, it is also very possible that you could loose a lot of money in the process of getting that great deal.   So, bidder beware.

If you would like to learn more about penny auctions, check out


Saturday, July 24, 2010

NTTA News Flash: I got a timely bill!


This is just a quick note to congratulate the NTTA for sending me a bill within two months of actual usage of the toll road system.

I only have one other vehicle with an outstanding bill from months ago.  In fairness to the NTTA, I suspect it may take longer simply because the vehicle still had dealer tags when I used the toll roads.

The last outstanding item for the NTTA that I can't wait to see is the 2010 NTTA Summary Annual Report.  You may recall from my previous blog post (NTTA Put To The Test...) where I hypothesized that the 2010 revenue may nearly double compared to previous years due to outrageous fees and poor invoice processing.  My last two blog posts give me hope that the NTTA may be cleaning up their invoice processing act.  If this blog post series (1-scam, 2-test, 3-update, 4-News Flash #1had anything to do with the improvements, kudos to social media and public accountability!

That's it for this update.  Have a great day!


Saturday, July 10, 2010

NTTA News Flash: I got a bill!

To my astonishment, I received my first bill from the NTTA yesterday.  Below you see a redacted version of the bill.  The most interesting thing to note from this bill is that it is for uses of the toll roads from late 2009 (e.g 6 months ago) and early 2010 (e.g. 3 months ago).  The early 2010 trip is one of the two trips that I have been tracking on my NTTA blog post series (1-scam, 2-test and 3-update).   Congratulations NTTA!  The bill isn't exactly timely but at least they kept their promise to send a bill.  Well done!  I hope that my remaining uses of the toll roads for my other two vehicles show up soon as well.

NTTA, I just paid my bill.  No need to send the collectors. ;-)

Have a great day!


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

NTTA Update...

Last weekend I really enjoyed shaving off nearly an hour of travel time by using the George Bush Turnpike (GBT) on my road trip.  When I got home, I realized that I was over due in providing my readers an update of my tests of the NTTA billing system.  The net of the tests was that I used the GBT and Dallas North Tollway (DNT) back in April of 2010 and on May 21st, 2010.  As of today, June 30, 2010 I have not received ANY bills for either of those uses of the NTTA toll roads.  

According to my experience with the NTTA billing process, the NTTA was supposed to promptly send me an invoice after I used the toll roads.  Then if my invoice was still unpaid after 30 days, they would send me a second invoice.   If I didn't pay either of those first two invoices within 60 days, they would add a $25 fine per invoice and turn my overdue unpaid invoices to a collection agency.  Last week marked the 30 day mark for may May 21st trip and I believe 60 days for my April trip.  Lets see how quickly that I get a letter from the collection agency.

I can't wait to send the collection agent to this series of blog posts. e.g. 3/7/20105/23/2010, and 6/30/2010.  However, if this billing cycle is anything like my previous experience, I may not hear from a collection agent until some time in 2012.

Have a blessed day!


Sunday, May 23, 2010

NTTA Put to the Test...

This last Friday (May 21st, 2010) I had to make a trip across the DFW metroplex.  I drove on the George Bush Turnpike (GBT) to see how long that it would take before the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) sent me the first bill for my use of the GBT as well as to see how many bills that I would receive because I passed though several automated Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) booths.  This test is for a car that I know they have in their system.  Theoretically, I should get a bill within a month or so.  We will see.

Last month I took a new vehicle on the GBT taking the same path as last week's journey.  Because that was a new vehicle, I don't expect to receive a bill for at least a few years.  That way the NTTA can charge me huge late fees and administrative fees in the process.

In my previous blog post regarding the NTTA , I suggested that with the way they handle (or perhaps better stated don't handle) sending out bills and reminders in a timely manner. In my case from my previous blog post, it took over two years before they finally sent me my first bill via a collection agency. When I received the bill, I was charged $175 for $7.34 worth of toll charges. I suggested in that blog post that if the NTTA only treated 20% of the 500,000 (source: CBS estimate) daily users of the NTTA toll system that they could earn approximately $2.3 million per day yielding a total annual income from excessive fees of over $800 million.

This made wonder how much that the NTTA actually earned last year. So scanned through their 2009 NTTA Summary Annual Report. I was shocked by the overview of their financials and the accounting of the use of the tollway at the end of the report.  For reference, here is a screen capture of that information.

The NTTA reported that they only had 456,700,028 transactions for all of 2009. I presume that a transaction is each individual toll that a driver passes through.  If this is the case, then in 2009 the NTTA earned approximately $.73 per transaction.  The NTTA used to charge around $.75/transaction on the Dallas North Toll Road.  So, the total number is relatively in alignment with what they should have made with a small amount of loss.  However, in 2009 they did raise toll rates.  The NTTA clearly didn't break even on their toll/transaction rate for 2009.

I wonder how much of the revenue was generated by late fees and administrative fees versus timely paying Toll Tag and non-Toll Tag customers.

If the NTTA wants to offer true financial accountability in order to make their case of being robbed by non-paying users of the toll roads, they should include in their annual report a full breakdown of transactional types (e.g. Toll Tag, non-Toll Tag, paying, non-paying, and the tolls, fees and late payments recouped by those transactions. This is the only way to truly make their case in a convincing way.

As a side note, there were several noteworthy quotes from the 2009 NTTA Annual Summary Report that I found quite interesting.  Here is the first quote.

After six months of all-ETC operation in 2009, traffic was meeting revised projections. Revenue continued to increase as more ZipCash invoices were sent and paid for travel on the PGBT.  In fact, revenues exceeded projections.

Lets look at the those actuals.  First, here are the number of transactions for 2009.
The number of transactions per month has some minor fluctuation but largely similar.  Roughly 35 million transactions per month.  Now lets look at the revenues for 2009.
I find it interesting that although the number of monthly transactions didn't change that much throughout the year but in the months of September and November the revenue was almost double the preceding months.  I wonder if that is when the NTTA started collecting late fees and administrative fees on "non-paying" customers like me who never received a bill until I was sent a collections notice.  That would certainly explain why the NTTA "revenues exceeded projections".

On to the next savory quote.  This one focuses on their great customer support.  Before you read this quote note that when I called in, I waited over 30 minutes before anyone picked up the phone.
In 2009, the Roadway Customer Service team handled 17,985 incidents, representing an average of 346 per week, with an average response time of less than 12 minutes.
I'm not sure if the NTTA is aware of this or not but an average response time (e.g. the amount of time you wait on hold for someone to answer the phone) of nearly 12 minutes is INSANELY too long to promote a happy customer.  If the NTTA only works a 40 hour week, that means that they took less than 9 calls per hour.  The NTTA either has really long calls per agent or have a very lax requirement to pick up the phone in a timely manner.

Note also from the same report that in 2009 the NTTA had to reorganize 170 employees and let 19 go.  Not sure if the 19 were from customer service or not but that might have contributed to the long hold times.

Here is the next quote.  Not so savory.
Fine-tuning our ZipCash invoices As with any ambitious new program, our ZipCash launch required some fine-tuning. Some ZipCash customers, having never received an invoice from the NTTA before, were initially confused about the process for billing and payment. We gave our invoices and notices a user-friendly makeover to help customers distinguish each step in the payment and collections process.  To minimize confusion about paying ZipCash tolls, each phase of the new three-step invoice process—ZipCash, ZipCash Late Notice and Violation Invoice— has a distinct look. We hope to encourage motorists to pay for the use of the toll road before any late or administrative fees are applied to the transactions. We want the customers’ payment process to flow as smoothly as their driving experience.
Glad they made the invoices pretty and all but if they don't send them, it doesn't really matter how pretty they are.  But there is a bonus for NTTA with this strategy.... a lot more late fees and administrative fees to collect.

Here was a quote that would be interesting to know the rest of the story.

The story behind administrative fees It is important to the NTTA that we conduct all of our business in ways that are fair, clear and easily understood.  One way we do that is by working to see that the 92 percent of motorists who pay their tolls are not subsidizing nonpaying motorists’ trips on toll roads.
The NTTA takes a hard-line stance on habitual violators. Our collection process includes an administrative fee, authorized by statute, to help pay for the cost of collection. This is not a stream of additional income but rather a way of recouping some of the costs associated with enforcement.
However, the NTTA realizes that mistakes happen, confusion occurs or invoices are overlooked. For that reason, we waive 67 percent of administrative fees incurred if any violator takes care of the balance before the outstanding invoice is transferred to a collection agency. We want to do all we can to help customers avoid any additional fees.

With respect to the 92% rule, that sounds like the NTTA is saying that 12% is the number of nonpaying motorists.  I wonder if the 67% of waived fees were for the customers like me that called in and demanded that the erroneous fees be dropped... and the NTTA customer service representatives begrudgingly agreed.

The next humorous thing I found in the report is that the NTTA setup a Facebook (FB) page to become more social.  So, I went to FB and searched on NTTA.  Unfortunately I didn't find the official NTTA page.  However, what did show up was quite interesting... NTTA Fines Suck! FB page.  This was a vibrant community of 90 NTTA anti-friends that were all to vocal of their disapproval of abusive NTTA fines.  I had to resort to Google to find the official NTTA FB page.

I can't wait to see the 2010 NTTA Annual Summary Report.  I wonder if the overall revenue will nearly double like it did in the months of September and November of 2009.

I hope you enjoyed this exploration into the the realm of the NTTA and found my commentary interesting.  If I have misrepresented anything or got some fact wrong, please don't hesitate to correct me.   When correcting though, please site all references for everyone's benefit.

That is it for tonight.  Have a great day!


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

MythMobile: MythTV Streaming for Mobile Devices

I am a long time user of MythTV. I am also a recent user of Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch mobile devices. One of my personal projects has been to figure out how to watch my MythTV recordings on these and other such mobile devices.  For example it should work on Android based devices as well. After much research and trial and error, I have finally come up with a solution that seems to work well.

The solution is relatively straight forward.  I transcode the recordings and store them in a user friendly naming scheme in a folder that is shared via Apache web server and Samba file share.  For extra convenience, I copy the recordings via rsync to an Internet accessible web server so that I can watch my recordings from anywhere.

The biggest challenge to this project was getting the transcoding right. Here is a sample invocation of ffmpeg that works for me.
# nice ffmpeg -y -i "${input_file}" -s 480x352 -r 29.97 -g 300 \
   -vsync 1 -vcodec mpeg4 -b 1280k -maxrate 1536k \
   -async 1 -acodec libfaac -ab 1024 -ar 44100 -ac 2 \
   -flags +aic+mv4 -mbd 2 -cmp 2 -subcmp 2 -bufsize 2M \
The three main video codecs that I recommend are MPEG-4 (e.g. mpeg4), DivX (e.g. libxvid), and H.264 (e.g. libx264).  The best video quality to me was a tie between MPEG-4 and DIVX.  You also can adjust the bitrate/maxbitrate to find the video quality/file size that best meets your needs.  A bitrate/maxrate combination of 1280k/1536k resulted in good video quality and about a 10x reduction in the file size from the native format (e.g. MythTV mpg) to mp4.

To simplify and automate my environment, I wrote two perl scripts that manage creating and presenting the mobile friendly video files.  The first perl script (e.g. transcodes, renames, and stores the video files in /var/www/MythMobile.  Note that Apache Web Server and Samba File Server have been configured to make /var/www/MythMobile available on my local network.  When running this script, you can specify via the optional flags the recordings directory with --r recordings_dir and the web directory with --w www_dir.  If no flags are specified, the default locations are /var/lib/mythtv/recordings for the recordings directory and /var/www/MythMobile for the web directory.

The second perl script (e.g. index.cgi) can be placed into a folder within your web server document root.  For example, I placed it in /var/www/MythMobile on my server.  This script facilitates presenting the video files in a Mobile device friendly format.  Note that I had to modify the Apache web server configuration (e.g. httpd.conf) with the following modifications.
  1. Add index.cgi to the DirectoryIndex.
  2. Add the .cgi handler by adding "AddHandler cgi-script .cgi".
  3. Add ExecCGI to the Options of the containing Directory.
With the installation of the index.cgi script and these three web server changes changes applied, the video files are presented with much more user friendly format as you can see from the pictures below.

Here are the vertical and horizontal views on an Apple iPhone.

Here is the vertical view on an Apple iPad.

Here is the horizontal view on an Apple iPad.

I bundled up the two perl scripts and a README and made them available as a zip file named

Check it out and try it for yourself.



Sunday, March 7, 2010

NTTA a scam and violating civil rights

This weekend I was shocked to receive the following (redacted to protect the innocent ... me) letter from a collection agency on behalf of the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) stating that they were collecting $182.34 for unpaid toll violations.

I thought about it and there were only three different scenarios where I could conceive there to be a possible infraction.
  • First, I recalled a time several years ago when upon returning home from a family trip we couldn't safely change lanes to get out of the Toll tag lane and into the toll lane in time. I received a bill a couple of weeks later for that incident and promptly paid it.
  • Second, there have been several times when going through the North Dallas Tollway the money collector does not properly tabulate your change. For example, in one occasion I put over 2 dollars worth of quarters into the basket and the counter never showed that I had paid more than 75 cents. I eventually just pulled through even though the light never turned green. As a side note, there ought to be a federal or at least state regulation that requires all toll agencies to contribute the excess to a noble cause or something useful other than lining their pockets... It looks like from this youtube video that this scenario this isn't all that uncommon.
  • Third, there were a couple of occasions where I drove through the George Bush Turnpike (GBT) after they had taken out the toll booths and replaced them with some sort of automated tolling system.
I must admit that in this third case I was a little freaked out the first time I drove through the GBT seeing the toll lanes blocked and signs like this one [left].

Trusting that they would send me a bill, I promptly and gladly forgot about the toll fully expecting to receive a bill that I would of course promptly pay. However, the bills NEVER CAME!!!!!

Instead, the letter from a collection agency arrived several months later on behalf of NTTA.

In all three of these scenarios, I am completely innocent of any wrong doing. Upon receipt of a bill, I paid it. Despite being robbed by an automated toll change collector, I paid more than was expected before driving on. And lastly, I couldn't be responsible for paying a bill that I never received!!!!

Back to my story... I called the NTTA (waiting for nearly an hour before I could talk to a real person). Lisa from the NTTA was kind enough to take my call. I asked if the NTTA had ever sent me a bill for these alleged violations. She recited several dates where the NTTA had sent a bill and then followed up a month later with a late notice bill and then after that handed the bills off to a collection agency. I told Lisa that I had NEVER received a bill pertaining to these charges. She insisted that the computer system shows that bills had been sent.

I then verified my billing address to insure that the NTTA had the correct information. Throughout our conversation I re-verified the billing address two other times just to be sure that it was correct. Indeed it was.

Lisa said that since this was my first offense she would give me a one time opportunity to pay my overdue bills without penalty. The sum total of my bill less penalty charges was a mere $7.34. I couldn't believe that the sum total was less than $10. They charged me an extra $175 in penalties for a $7.34 bill that I had NEVER SEEN! If this isn't a scam I don't know what is.

Here is a redacted copy of the receipt for my toll fees:

I asked Lisa to show me how to login to so that I could see the toll violations for myself. Lisa looked up my NTTA account number, which I can't get unless they send me a bill. We then entered the account number and the assocaited license plate number. Here were the 7 offenses.

Not sure if you can see it or not but the first two were from 2008. That was over two years ago!!! I haven't moved in over 5 years, so there is no excuse for not having sent the bills to the appropriate address. The NTTA simply just didn't send them!!!

Now that you have heard my lament, you are probably thinking just buy a toll tag and quit griping.... right? Well in researching for this blog post I have discovered that my situation appears to be more the norm than the exception. This youtube clip from CBS11 is a good example but there are many more. Just google on NTTA scam and you will find many more similar stories.

This begs the question, how does this situation line up with the law?

The Eighth amendment to the Constitution of the United States (e.g. the Bill of Rights) states
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
This statement is echoed in the section 13 of the Bill of Rights section of the Texas Constitution as well.

I am not sure what constitutes an excessive fine but the multiplier effect of each use of the tollway should be taken into consideration. For example a $25 fine for an unpaid $1.00 toll seems excessive. However, if the person used the toll 20 times, the fines would be $500 for a $20 toll bill. That seems very excessive to me.

Further, if people are intentionally not provided a bill in a timely manner so as to negate their opportunity to pay in a timely manner should be a criminal offense in my humble opinion. This was clearly the case for me and it doesn't appear that I am the only person in this situation as you can see from the many comments on this thread.

In researching this matter I saw several justifications of the fines stating that they are legitimate because the effected people were informed via their NTTA bill that a $25 fine would be imposed for every unpaid toll bill. I can understand that if people actually got a bill in a timely manner. However, I (and apparently many other people) have NEVER received a bill before receiving a collections notice.

The collection noticed cited Section 366.178 of the Texas Transportation Code which states that you can be fined up to $250 per incident plus an additional $100 administration fee per incident. That means that the NTTA can charge you up to $350 per $1.00 toll that you don't pay in a timely manner. That is insane! This law needs to be repealed or modified to limit the scope to a lower maximum per incident and capped at a maximum annual fee and for that matter a maximum lifetime fee!!! Further, someone needs to file a class action law suit to recover damages for everyone that hasn't stood up for their rights.

CBS stated that there are an estimated 500,000 people that use the George Bush Turnpike every day. If only 20% are scammed in the same way that I was scammed, the NTTA is earning nearly an extra $2.3 million in fines alone every day.

I have read of many people electing to not use toll roads. I'm not so sure that is very practical for most north DFW commuters. In addition, it doesn't defend the rights of unsuspecting and defenseless people that pass through our state that will not stand up for themselves and just pay the fines.

So, to all of you lawyers and television news networks out there that want to see real justice, please look into this matter and see to it that the NTTA is held accountable for this abusive scam and violation of the civil rights of Texans and every other person that happens to pass through a North Texas toll road.

Thanks in advance!