City employs secret invention to foil theft from Vancouver's 'dumb' parking meters

Police and city staff say there’s a growing number of thefts from coin-operated parking meters. A Vancouver meter technician has invented a secret weapon they hope foils vandals siphoning people’s hard-earned money.

Meter thieves in Vancouver pilfer an estimated $600,000 per year

Coin slot or crime opportunity? Vancouver's parking meters are under growing attack from vandals who block coins and return later to fish them out. (David Horemans/CBC)

Vancouver's coin-stuffed parking meters are under siege from vandals, but a city staffer has come up with an idea to thwart rising theft.

The city parking meter technician invented a secret weapon he hopes will foil vandals who are making off with people's hard-earned coins.

Meter stuffing or jamming

Meter jamming is the process of stealing coins by snaking a homemade chain or string into the coin slot to block coins from landing in the holding chamber — which is nearly impossible to breach.

Later, the thief returns and uses magnets or some kind of homemade device to fish out coins, said police.

"When you put your money in, it won't register and you get frustrated, Later, somebody comes back with a simple device to fish out your money, essentially taking your money," said Vancouver Police Sgt. Jason Robillard.

Perpetrators face mischief, theft and other charges, which Robillard said are on the rise.

The inventive city staffer's idea thrilled Vancouver's director of streets, Taryn Scollard, who gets furious when she sees pilfering in action.

Last year, repairs due to meter vandalism doubled compared to 2016.

She said she's called 911 in the past to stop thieves from taking a bite out of the more than $53 million in revenue the city earns each year from parking. Meter vandalism rose alongside parking revenue, which has more than doubled in a decade.

But Scollard said a smart staff member has come up with a modification that somehow prevents vandals from jamming the coin slot and taking money.

In the past, the city has tried installing special pins to prevent thieves from pulling out the coins. But this new device, which Scollard said is being kept secret so vandals do not learn how to circumvent it, is showing more potential at curbing coin theft.

Prototypes of the modified meters have been installed in one secret zone in Vancouver so far.

'How to' video drove up theft

A few years ago, a news report about meter jamming taught robbers how it was done, which contributed to a spike in thefts from Gastown to Burnaby, she said.

Meter jamming is the process of stealing coins by snaking a chain or string into the coin slot to block coins from landing in the holding chamber. Police say it's on the rise and people who do it are charged with mischief or theft. (David Horemans/CBC)

Meter theft is a problem especially with older meters, which, if vandalized, can't tally how much money was taken.

"Here's the problem with our meters, they are dumb meters," said Scollard.

And the spoils from theft are not small-time, especially now, given the exploding price of parking.

"A couple of years ago it would have been quarters, so now it's loonies and toonies," said Scollard.

Rich vein of coins

Each day, city crews harvest an average of 107 kilograms of coins (236 pounds) from city meters, she said. 

That pile of jingle is the same weight as President Donald Trump, if his scale is accurate.

The problem is, some of the coins people insert never make it past the jamming devices.

People in their rush to park often don't notice if a meter is broken, or can't tell if it's been "jammed" before it's too late.

If four people per day put one loonie into a meter that's broken or potentially tampered with by vandals (out-of-service meters average about five per cent of the city's 10,000-meter population), losses would top $600,000 in a year.

A City of Vancouver parking enforcement officer checks a vehicle in Yaletown. A city parking meter maintenance technician has come up with a secret modification to foil bandits who target coin slots for cash. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Scollard said the person who devised the modification to curb vandalism was a meter technician on her staff.

The challenge was getting meter makers to help install it.

Scollard said there was little interest because American money — made of non-magnetic alloys of nickel and copper — can't be fished out with magnets. So the U.S. meter manufacturers were slow to get excited about the Canadian innovation.

"They don't have the same problems that we do with people trying to fish money out of meters. So we have a little bit of a unique problem here," she said.

But city staff managed to get one prototype built. And it's now installed in select meters somewhere in the city.

Test to see if robbers are deterred

It's a test to see if it can stop coin robbers, or if it just shifts them over a few blocks.

Scollard said in Gastown, where thefts were the highest, meters were converted to pay-by-phone, in part to stop theft.

More than half of city parking revenue is now pay-by-phone, but there is no plan to retire coin meters, which parkers find convenient.

But the city does hope to silence the sound of loot jingling in meter jammers' jeans for good.

About the Author

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend