Highway Robbery – The Tale Of The Ridiculous Toll Bill
With all the 2020ness in 2020, it seems like everyone is just wishing that this year would end. Today, though, I have a positive story for y’all. It’s about how, after a six month battle, I finally emerged victorious. Score one for the little guy, woo! If you’ve ever wondered how to fight a toll bill, read on….
See, it all started a long time ago, in an era when international travel was still a thing (remember that? Me neither). February of this year! Ya boy was on his way to the Dad 2.0 Summit. I flew to it out of Buffalo’s airport. I should note that I’m an infrequent visitor to New York State. The Wazes App is my best friend, the few times that I am there. I know of toll booths, from travelling on highways in the US, but I had no clue that New York used a cashless toll system.
A month after Dad 2.0, in April, I get a bill in the mail from Tolls By Mail. Apparently, I unwittingly used a toll highway at some point in Buffalo, and now they’ve come to collect. The bill was for……….
Ain’t it funny (word to J-lo!)? It costs way more to process a bill, print it, and mail it to Canada, than the actual amount of the toll. Why even bother? At this point, I’ll own up to making a mistake. Instead of paying this immediately, I forgot about it.
About a month later, in May, I received another bill from Tolls By Mail. For not paying the $1, I now owed……
Fair is fair. I used their service, and I was late paying for the use of it. Tolls By Mail has an online payment option, so that’s what I did. When I logged into my account, to pay, the total owing was $2. I remember thinking that was odd, but maybe I got a discount for paying online, instead of sending a cheque.
My account was paid off, end of story, right?
Weeks later, I received ANOTHER letter from Tolls By Mail. This time, it stated that, for not paying my $1 toll, I now owed $51 in late fees!
51 US dollars!
51 US dollars was like 80 something dollars Canadian! When I logged into Tolls By Mail again, the balance owing was this amount. How do I pay off a bill, and receive a receipt indicating as much, only for the company to see that I paid it, re-bill me for it, then tack on a fine for non-payment that is 5000% greater than the original violation?
I had to call Tolls By Mail, to find out. With the pandemic, their customer service is limited, so I was on hold for a long time. When I did finally speak to an agent, I was told that, for reasons that she didn’t know, two accounts were generated for me. So, same name, same license plate, but the addresses were different. If my address was 123 Sesame Street, they had an account for that, but also for 123 Sesame Street Rural Route 4.
Anyway, she said that my payment got applied to the “wrong” account. She advised me to prepare a letter indicating this mix up, and mail it to their dispute department. I couldn’t talk to this department, or email them. Correspondence is by mail only, because apparently the year is 1920, not 2020.
Flash forward to late June. No reply to my letter, and my account still showed $51. Another call is needed, to follow up. This time, I spoke to an agent who was working from home. Her connection and phone were so bad, though, that it was like I was talking to the speaker in a McDonald’s drive-thru. I was able to decipher in our convo that correspondence was taking longer, due to pandemic issues. Being in Canada was also a factor, due to postal delays here.
She did have a new reason for my two accounts. Apparently, last year, in June, I had been to Buffalo, and, unwittingly again, used toll highways. I incurred a charge of….$2
This was news to me, of course. And, through the phone distortion, the agent was shocked, too, that I never was informed, and that there weren’t more late fees. I did not receive anything in the mail, ever, about this $2 fee. However, when I paid off the bill online in May, that was to pay off the June 2019 amount.
Now, I’m just a regular dad of average intelligence. My account balance was $2. When Tolls By Mail received my payment, someone there had the wherewithal to notice the two accounts in my name. Instead of leaving it at that, or doing up a letter explaining the error, and requesting payment for $1, this person consolidated the accounts, and charged me $1, plus $50 for being delinquent.
The agent didn’t have an answer. She suggested that to settle things up, all I needed to do was send a money order for $6 (the amount of the second letter, if you recall) along with, you guessed it, another letter explaining what happened to the mysterious, technologically backwards dispute department. I ordered a Big Mac before I hung up, (not!) then headed to the bank. If you’ve ever wanted to be laughed at by a bank teller, I suggest ordering a $6 US money order for a $1 toll charge. Even they took pity on me, and didn’t charge any transaction fees for this nonsense.
Weeks later, end of July, I check my Tolls By Mail account. The amount owing is $45. So, they got my money order, cool. Instead of cancelling the balance, as I was told, they just applied the $6 and left it open.
Another call is needed.
This agent told me that my case was still in dispute, and no resolution was made yet. This contradicts what I was told on my prior call, as the $6 was supposed to have been the resolution. Decisions were still slow, because of the pandemic. I could expect to hear back via mail once a decision was made. I did ask if there was anything that I could do, to speed things up. It’s nicknamed snail mail, not cheetah mail, and Tolls By Mail already screwed things up in my account. The agent advised me to hang tight, and not to worry.
On August 21st, I received the following letter, dated AUGUST 3rd:
ARE YOU JOKING ME?!
Soooo, just to recap. I paid my toll bill. Tolls By Mail received my money, then realized that they messed up billing my account. Due to this mistake, they charged me an exorbitant late fee. After two attempts to rectify the situation, PER THEIR SUGGESTIONS, and after they acknowledged that their snail mail system of doing things is slow, they came up with this result. There was little chance that I would even receive this letter within 10 days, let alone receive it, then be able to send it back with payment within 10 days! And how the heck did they come up with this $5 settlement amount, too? I was bemused before, but now I was mad.
Time to make another call to Tolls By Mail. After telling my story, and explaining how unfair their 10 day ultimatum was, the agent gave me another number to call. Will I FINALLY be able to talk to the mysterious dispute department?
It was the number for their collections company, Linebarger, Heard, Goggan, Blair and Sampson LLP. Because I didn’t pay within 10 days, they sent my debt to collections. To paraphrase some famous scholar, ish just got real, dawg!
This time, the collections agent told me to (stop me if you’ve heard this before) prepare a letter, but fax it to them. They would then review it, and send it back to Tolls By Mail dispute department, to see if they could pull back the fees. The agent also revealed to me that they received my file in late July.
You know, so when I called Tolls By Mail around then, to ask what was up with my account, and they told me to hang tight, that actually meant that they had every intent to send my debt to collections, regardless. Then, the unrealistic, unreasonable letter that they sent me was just for show, as even if I magically was able to meet their 10 day deadline, it was pointless, as the $45 was already in the hands of the collection agency.
I send the fax, along with my supporting documents. Two days later, I call LHGBS (emphasis on the BS, in my case). They received my fax, and had forwarded it on to my friends in the dispute department. Let’s call Tolls By Mail, and ask to talk to my pals, to follow up.
The agent was pretty rude, to be perfectly honest, unlike the others. After explaining my story, I was told, in no polite terms, that the only way to communicate with the dispute department was by mail. She could not transfer me. They did not have a phone number or email for that department. When I asked how did she get in touch with them, then, the agent said that they didn’t. Mail only.
Can you imagine what the holiday parties at Tolls By Mail must be like? I picture the agents happily sipping eggnog in one place, while the Wizard Of Oz-like dispute department are hard at work in their office, because their snail mailed invitations to the party didn’t come in time.
Anyway, I then asked to speak to a manager. After initially being told that they didn’t have one (these people don’t have bosses? Do they all work in silos independently or something?), she then said that a manager would just tell me the same information. Fine, so put one on then, was my reply. I am then on hold for three minutes. When the agent came back, she told me that no managers were available, even though that they weren’t busy (huh?), and to call back later. Or, I could send a letter to the dispute department (since that worked out so well before). Basically, she blew me off.
Now really mad, I did what anyone would do in the heat of the moment:
Trump probably had more important things on his plate that morning than to worry about minor traffic infractions, so I quickly kiboshed that idea. I did the next best thing, though:
I kept going to Andrew Cuomo’s staff’s voicemails, however. Not wanting to wait, I then did the next, next best thing – I called the NY State Thruway Authority’s Media Relations and Communications number. My rationale was that they might provide me with the contact information for the mysterious Tolls By Mail dispute department, if I played my blogger card, and said that I was doing a story on them. What? It was a Hail Mary play, but worth a shot.
I get through immediately, then tell the person my tale from the beginning. At the end, I ask for the contact info. To my delight, the woman refuses to give it to me!
It was because that she had the authority to waive the $45. She agreed with the ridiculousness, and authorized the removal of the late fee. If Tolls By Mail still decided to pursue the matter, she told me to send them her way. Perfect! And I didn’t have to play my blogger card, either.
Today, I logged into my Tolls By Mail account. Here is what I saw:
After six months, my ordeal was finally over.
So what are the takeaways here? Well, if you ever get a minuscule bill, just pay it immediately, for one. Tolls By Mail’s dispute process is very suspect, for another. They’re so lacking in transparency, that even if you provide irrefutable evidence that they screwed up, they won’t admit it. My experience is nothing, compared to some other horror stories in dealing with them, too. Be careful when using the highways in New York!
Finally, and most importantly, any injustice, big or small, is worth fighting for. And even if takes a long time to make a change, you gotta keep fighting.
Until the next one, peace!