When skiers shuffle through lift lines at many Colorado resorts these days, all they need to do is point to the pocket holding their lift ticket or pass. New technology — radio-chipped “smart cards” — have done away with the antiquated hole punch and the visual scan.
With the introduction of Vail Resorts’ five-mountain, $600 Epic Pass, more skiers than ever are using season passes. Even though the season pass agreement explicitly forbids any sharing of the pass, incidents of pass fraud soared. And the cheats are being caught because the new scan equipment displays the height, weight and photo of the actual pass owner. Vail Resorts scan system had nabbed 14 scammers by the week before Christmas.
The number of fraud tickets issued by Vail police climbed from 90 tickets in 2007-08 to 204 in the 2008-09 ski season, the same year the company introduced its smart passes. Aspen Skiing Co. also introduced radio-chipped passes last season and saw a surge in fraud attempts and busts, though it hasn’t released how many people were caught.
Resorts and law enforcement say it’s hard to know whether the uptick in fraud cases is from more people trying to sneak onto the hill or from the new radio-frequency technology enabling ticket checkers to more easily spot scammers.
Vail Resorts designed its own software for lift-ticket scanning, engineering a system that is both efficient — virtually eliminating lift lines — and effective in catching frauds. Scanners get a $50 to $75 bonus for each scam they disrupt.
Signs in Vail’s lift lines are updated daily to show how many ski days have been ruined by scanners sniffing out ticket fraud.
The fines in Vail, says Police Chief Dwight Henninger, typically run $500 and include forfeiture of any season pass used in the fraud. Fines can reach $999. Lie about your name — or in the most popular case from Keystone so far this season, lie about undergoing a sex-change procedure when busted with your boyfriend’s pass — and you get jail time. The ski areas may revoke passes that are used fraudulently.
Though Summit has less prosecutions, Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort have tallied comparable numbers of people committing ski pass and lift ticket fraud. In 2009 Vail Mountain recorded 454 cases, Breckenridge Ski Resort had 418 and Keystone Resort had 337.
Many resorts have begun stings to nab renegade ski instructors who offer on-the-hill lessons without going through the resort. Last season, Vail ski instructors groused about the increasing prevalence of underground paid lessons and guiding at Vail and Beaver Creek. They wondered whether Vail’s guardians were doing enough to stop it and protect their jobs.
The mountain joined the U.S. Forest Service in an undercover operation that netted a dozen illegal instructors. Those instructors faced federal charges and fines up to $5,000, although most first-time offenders were cited for $525. The real sting is a lifetime ban from skiing at all five Vail Resorts ski areas.
Anyone — including hunting, rafting, hiking or snowmobiling guides — who makes money in exchange for services on public land without a permit is breaking federal law, says Forest Service ranger Don Dressler.
Aspen Skiing Co. looks to its army of 1,200 to 1,400 instructors to keep an eye out for underground instruction. In Vail, several of the underground instructors nabbed last season were former resort employees. Many of the instructors had told their clients, if questioned, to deny any financial deal.