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THE OUTDOORS DIGEST | SLOPES

Ski scamming

Cheaters trying to get to the top risk a season of fun.

November 18, 2003|Rebecca Huntington | Special to The Times

The simplest scheme is the cut and paste.

In February, two foreign tourists purchased a single ski lift ticket, photocopied its day-specific bar code and pasted the duplicate over an old ticket's expired code. They carved up Rendezvous Mountain for a day, "saving" $61, before a lift attendant at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort spotted the forgery.

Short on cash but not currency, another skier there offered an attendant a "green pass," a.k.a. marijuana, in exchange for a gondola ride.

Each ski season brings steeper prices and new fare-beating ploys, but plain old ticket sharing -- like, oops, dropping a ticket-clad mitten to a friend below the lift -- and season-pass swapping return year after year. Resort officials downplay ski ticket fraud, calling it negligible. Free rides shave less than 10% off their ticket take, according to Peter Hoskins, vice president of marketing and sales for Resort Technology Partners, a maker of ski-ticket software used by many of the nation's top resorts.

The truth is, resorts have no way of tracking how many people use the unfenced slopes without paying. Vail, with the capacity to carry more than 50,000 skiers per hour up the Colorado mountain, tallied 188 busts for ski pass fraud over the last two seasons, police records show. But resorts rarely involve the authorities in misdemeanor theft cases.

Most resorts for years have enlisted technology police -- bar codes, scanners and tracking software -- to monitor traffic flow at each lift and foil cheaters. These systems also allow lift operators to flag any skier or boarder who tries to use a ticket that has been reported stolen or lost, as long as the victim can provide a coded receipt. Resorts estimate that installing a bar-code system cuts losses in half, Hoskins said.

Park City Mountain Resort and others take the concept to the next level, replacing humans with 12 turnstiles at its four most popular chairlifts. Skiers carry a credit card-size pass with an embedded chip and radio-frequency antenna. When the skier slides up to the turnstile, the gate scans the chip's day-specific code, which never has to leave a skier's pocket, and the turnstile swings open.

The cards cost about $2.25 more to manufacture than a paper ticket, said Kenny Lentz, senior information technology manager for the Utah resort, and the turnstiles go for $8,000 to $10,000 each. But the payroll plummets. And would-be cheaters, including the 48-year-old man who tried to swap pot for a gondola ride, cannot barter with a machine.

Although the turnstile system ensures pass validity, it does not prevent skiers from sharing passes.

Biometrics -- retinal scans and fingerprint recognition -- could prevent that by matching a person to a pass, Hoskins said, if only the clientele didn't wear goggles and mittens. Ski resorts are just beginning to tap the possibilities. "We're using smart technology dumb," said Park City's Lentz. If he has his way, ski resorts will smarten up by storing a full customer profile, including credit card number, on those pea-sized chips to eliminate the ticket window.

Meanwhile, many resorts still rely on "people power," said Susie Barnett-Bushong of Grand Targhee Ski Resort in Wyoming. It pays $50 a pop to lift attendants who spot fraudulent tickets. Locally, Bear Mountain-Snow Summit offers a similar bonus. With more than 750,000 visitors a year at the resorts combined, a sharp-eyed attendant could do well.

At Bear Mountain-Snow Summit, season pass "misusers" get blacklisted for a few weeks -- or longer -- if they're repeat offenders, said spokesman Brad Farmer. In many cases, the resorts also seek restitution. The two men who tried the cut-and-paste scheme at Jackson Hole ultimately paid a total of $484 and were banned from the resort for a year. The threat of suspension or expulsion is often far worse to an avid skier than a misdemeanor citation for theft of services, said county sheriff's detectives in several resort areas. But revoking their fun for life might please the many skiers who pay for the sins of thieves through pricier tickets.

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