My Brief ORCA Nightmare

It has been a few months since my horrible experience with ORCA. I wanted to give myself a while to digest the events and now it’s time to share my narrative.

ORCA is a regional transit pass system. The pass is the size of a credit card and responds to magnetic scanners on buses, trains, and ferries which debits a virtual account for the fares to each respective ride. It is convenient but it irritated me long before this incident. It has Orwellian overtones tieing my movement and habits to a database driven system. For now I may have nothing to hide. However, as with any far and wide system ways to abuse, circumvent, and harass are virtually inherent. One day when the government decides folks who actively voice opposition to bureaucracy and regulation are terrorists they could, with what I’d consider essential impunity, end my means of transportation or build strategies to intercept me by studying my records. I hesitate to share what seems like paranoia but I think it is valid for in my case it turned out to be ironic.

I purchased my ORCA card and it arrived a few days later. I zipped to and from work my first few weeks with no hassles or problems. The first month went on without a hitch. I had used one before as one of my previous employers bought these regional passes for all it’s employees. It’s pretty darn convenient.

Soon I had visited the website and purchased the next month’s worth of ferry and bus passes. I made the purchase, went to work the following day, and arrived at work with no problem. My ride home was also unremarkable until I disembarked from the ferry and tried to board a bus to which would take me from the ferry terminal to my car which was parked at a distant park and ride.

“Card blocked” it read. The scanner made this unique beep that caught my attention. I tried again. Same thing. Bewildered, I explained to the driver that my card had worked him and I wasn’t sure what the problem was. The driver, fortunately, allowed me to board without fare. I sat and immediately logged onto the ORCA website using my phone. There was my card – status: blocked. Reason – other. I opened the web form to contact support and explained that it worked fine all day but it stopped working on my commute home. This was Friday evening. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected a speedy response.

On Monday my card was still blocked. I used cash to ride the bus in the morning and the ferry is without fare destined to Seattle. I called ORCA that morning and was told by a representative that they weren’t sure what had happened, someone is looking into it, and would call me once things were figured out. Sure thing, I gave my name and number expecting to hear back later that day.

I didn’t. Unfortunately, this was $140.90 of my money that was tied up in a system that I needed to ride the ferry. With funds being fairly tight (I had just switched from starting a business to this great job but it was going to take a while to get things caught up) I thought it’d be prudent to purchase a pass with a discount rather than to pay the full fare daily. I’d have to pay for the fares myself until they resolved this mysterious issue. I was scrimping along counting change and finding dollars stashed in old jeans. I called later that day and was told a supervisor was still looking into it.

The following day I called again and received the same responses in one shape or another. The bus driver had suggested I try calling the local transit authority rather than deal with ORCA which I did the next day. It was now Wednesday. At this point I was frustrated. I had little money left, my passes were blocked for an unknown reason, and I was getting no answers from anyone. I contacted Kitsap Transit and got through to a woman who sympathized with my story and said she would look into it and get back to me.

Friday morning I received an e-mail from the woman which was a forward from the ORCA supervisor. It took a week to get some semblance or what was happening. It read:

[Kitsap Transit Agent], he had a failed transaction on a credit card owned by someone else. Then he had a successful transaction that we just found out this morning was on a stolen card. You can let him know, as he has already been told, that the transactions are being investigated by the Pierce County police and he could contact them if he has information that would clear the situation up.

I had not been told any of this! I had not used a stolen card! I was completely confused, infuriated, and shocked that this was happening to me. No recourse and my money tied up in some random computer incident. I called the Pierce County Sheriff in an attempt to verify any information. They hadn’t heard of me. What was going on?!

The sheriff’s office hadn’t heard of this case or anything related to this. They didn’t even know what ORCA was. The successful transaction was on my own debit card which I had in my very own hands an authorized. What the fuck are these people smoking!

I decided to end the nightmare by issuing a charge back through my bank. I got all my money back and bought a separate Washington State ferries pass (to get the discount) and used cash on the bus (unfortunately, Kitsap Transit as well as other local transit authorities discontinued their own monthly passes and opted into this system). I went ORCA free for six months before I decided to try them again. To keep myself from using their system directly, I go to a local grocery store and have it “recharged” there every month. Since then I haven’t had any problems.

I’m sure this was probably a fluke. However, it was eerie how powerless and helpless I felt because of some system that took my money and then refused to render service.

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