Pssst! Wanna Buy a Lift Ticket?

Fall Line

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When a 72-year-old man redeemed an employee pass for a regular lift ticket at Colorado’s Breckenridge Ski Resort last season, the folks at the window knew something was fishy. It wasn’t the first time the man—whom nobody could recall seeing working at the mountain—had used an employee pass to obtain a lift ticket. One suspicious employee tailed the man to the on-mountain Bergenhof Restaurant on Peak 8 and caught him trying to resell the ill-gotten pass. When police visited the elderly man’s home, they discovered a cache of 226 employee passes. “These things are like money,” the man told an officer.

“Theft is a problem that’s as old as skiing,” says David Rowan, founding publisher of Ski Area Management, an industry trade publication. Indeed, take a careful look around at any area in the country and you’ll find skiers and snowboarders illegally sharing season passes or snipping wickets and reselling tickets in the parking lot—and maybe even a few computer geeks skiing free with passes duplicated on laser printers. Nobody can pinpoint how much money fraud costs the industry, but Charles Culp, president of the ticket company Comptrol Systems, says simply: “It’s huge.” Some studies estimate resorts lose up to 8 percent of ticket revenue to fraud. With roughly $2 billion in ticket sales last season, that would put the nationwide price tag at $160 million.

And guess who pays. Ski-industry executives estimate the cost of fraud could add more than 5 percent to ticket prices. Vail Senior Vice President William Jensen gives a smaller estimate for “deception” at his resort: 2 percent of ticket revenues, or about $1 million per year. Jensen (among the few executives willing to discuss theft) says roughly $1 of Vail’s $71 ticket price last season went to cover scamming.

“It’s a very difficult figure to get a handle on,” says John Creel, president of Rapidtron Inc., a ticketing-system company. Theft is, by its nature, conducted in the shadows. For ski resorts to know precisely how much money they’re losing on fraud, they’d have to catch every cheat on the mountain. “Whatever resorts say the figure is, it’s probably higher,” Creel says.

Especially when you factor in the expenses entailed in policing fraud. Tickets themselves have evolved greatly over the years because of theft concerns. In the ’40s, paying customers received small coupons to put in their pockets. When ski areas noticed that people were sharing coupons, the “pasteboard” ticket was born. Four-inch-long pasteboards were stapled to a jacket or glove, but cheats simply shared the jacket bearing the ticket. This led some areas to staple pasteboards to trousers on the theory, probably accurate, that skiers are disinclined to swap pants. But the advent of fashionable ski clothing in the ’60s killed the pasteboard; skiers complained about the holes punched in their expensive togs. Thus was born the “sticky wicket” system, in which an adhesive ticket is folded over a wire frame. At some point, skiers realized they could peel the tickets off the wickets for resale by softening the adhesive with a solvent. Wickets are still widely used today, but the adhesives have been improved and the tickets are vented to keep them from being peeled off intact.

Now, ski areas are increasingly looking to higher-tech—and more costly—solutions. Scanners, for instance, reject bar-coded tickets that show a skier has made a suspiciously rapid round-trip to the summit, or which show the same person at two different lifts simultaneously, suggesting a duplicated ticket. At the end of any given day, an area can see if a season-pass holder took an unrealistic number of runs, which might indicate sharing.

A growing number of resorts inscribe season passes with holograms, which are nearly impossible to replicate. Reusable plastic tickets with chips that emit a radio signal are widely used in Europe and are impervious to counterfeiting. Customers pocket the cards, and chairlift tuurnstiles automatically open when built-in receivers detect the proper frequency. “We don’t need people scanning tickets. We have one person to greet customers,” says Mary Jo Johnson, ticket manager at Utah’s Solitude Mountain Resort, which is among the few U.S. areas to use the system.

The downside, of course, is cost. Radio frequency systems, for instance, can add as much as $5 to the price of a lift ticket—a price small ski areas can’t afford. “I’d have to raise ticket prices to pay for that stuff,” says Carol Lugar, president of Connecticut’s Mohawk Mountain. “I can’t do that to my customers.”

Some of the best security, however, has always has been well-trained employees who scrutinize tickets for fakes, examine pictures on season passes and watch for suspicious activity. To encourage better policing by employees, Winter Park offers workers a $20 reward if they identify a nonpaying customer, $40 if the worker can deliver the suspect to security. Vail employees get up to $75 to nail a scammer. Breckenridge gives off-duty police officers, who wear Breck jackets over their uniforms, free passes if they volunteer for ticket security patrol. Down the road, resorts could even implement fingerprint readers to control access to the lifts (see box on page 52).

In the end, though, all the technology in the world can’t change attitudes, and most ticket scammers don’t see hitching a few free lift rides as a crime. “If someone goes into a grocery store and shoplifts, that’s seen as theft,” says Dan Rutherford, president of Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor, who estimates his losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “But people don’t look at stealing ski runs as theft.” The law, however, does. In Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge, which are among a growing number of communities adopting local ski-hill theft ordinances, offenders are required to appear in municipal court, where fines range up to $500. Parents in Litchfield, Conn., probably wonder what a local high-school teacher was thinking last season when he and four students were discovered using the computer lab for extracurricular activities: making counterfeit passes to Mohawk Mountain. The teacher resigned, and the students did community service. Even police are surprised at the audacity of filchers. “It’s funny sometimes,” says Crystal Dean, administrative supervisor of the Breckenridge Police Department. “I’ve seen females using males’ passes. I’ve seen a 15-year-old using a 50-year-old guy’s pass. You wonder what they’re thinking.”

Indeed, most cheats aren’t sophisticated crooks—or 72-year-old men—but teens and college students: “the impoverished but passionate 19-year-old,” as Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, puts it. During the 1980s, when few youngsters were taking up skiing, theft was a smaller problem. “It’s ironic,” Berry adds. “We love the sport getting younger, but part of that is you’ve got more young guys who don’t want to pay.” Or, rather, who want you to pay for them.