Automatic license plate readers on the state's toll roads are making mistakes that lead to wrong charges going to drivers and, in some cases, more than once, an 8 On Your Side investigation has found.
And there are cases where the computerized plate readers cannot tell the difference between in-state and out-of-state tags.
For 10 months, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority's Toll-by-Plate system has billed Susan Masterson of Tampa for a vehicle that is not hers.
Masterson's license plate ends with 0WU. Since January she has received invoices from the authority for a car with a plate that ends with 0MU.
"I don't want to pay for something that's not mine," Masterson said.
So every month she called the authority's customer service center in Miami to straighten things out.
"Obviously there's a problem and you need to be able to capture this and take care of it, but that's not happening," she said.
The customer service center convinced Masterson to open a SunPass account to reduce the chances of being improperly billed. With a SunPass, customers are provided with transponders for their vehicles. Then, computers on the toll roads detect the code on the transponder and bill the appropriate account.
For vehicles without transponders, Toll-by-Plate cameras get an image and a computer reads the license plate, matches that plate in a database at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, and an invoice is sent to the last known address of the vehicle's owner.
"I got the SunPass. The I-toll still put the same car on my SunPass which was eroding my money, so I had to give that up," Masterson said.
The authority's executive director, Joseph Waggoner, admits occasionally the electronic tolling system has problems distinguishing one number or letter from another.
"If you're doing 10 million of these a year, some things are going to happen and if it's our mistake, it comes back again to us. We'll hold ourselves accountable, we'll fix it, we apologize for the mistake," Waggoner said.
The authority conceded Masterson's plate was being misread and her SunPass account was incorrectly charged. It claims to have corrected the issue and refunded the money, and the authority put her plate on a special list to be monitored.
Masterson said she received yet another incorrect invoice from the authority this month.
To get things started as smoothly and inexpensively as possible, the Tampa authority partnered with the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority. They both hired a Texas company called Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. The Tampa authority signed a three-year contract with ETCC in June 2010, and pays the Texas company about $1 million a year to operate its electronic tolling system.
The authority also spent about $900,000 equipping the expressway for electronic tolling.
Waggoner estimates the authority's system cannot read about 3 percent of the plates on vehicles using the Selmon Expressway. He says the authority doesn't keep track of how many plates are misread or how many vehicle owners are mistakenly billed.
But problems with the electronic tolling system are not new.
According to an April 2011 letter from the executive director of the Miami-Dade system to ETCC, the Texas company provided a poorly designed optical character reader and no properly functioning vehicle signature recognition application.
"It's not as good as it should be," Waggoner said. "There's some software there that we thought they'd implement, but they haven't, so we're not satisfied."
Neither is Maria Morales of Brandon, who is an example of why better image enhancement software is needed.
Morales owns a Jeep Cherokee with the vanity plate "RUBIA." But, the picture on her invoice shows the authority billed her for a car with a novelty or fake New York plate that also reads "RUBIA."
"I kept getting different statements in the mail and I started looking through and realized, hey, that's not my car," Morales said.
Waggoner admits the expressway authority's $1 million-a-year system is also unable to recognize out of state plates, or makes and models of vehicles.
The authority charged Morales fees and fines, and turned her over to a collection agency.
Her problems didn't stop there.
"Five times. Five times it's happened," Morales said.
The Florida Turnpike Enterprise's electronic tolling system, which is separate from the Tampa authority, also charged Morales for a BMW that carries a "RUBIA" novelty plate on the front. The state issued her a ticket and threatened to suspend her license for the turnpike's mistake.
Turnpike Enterprise executive director Dianne Scaccetti admits her electronic tolling system also can't distinguish between real Florida license plates, novelty plates, and out-of-state plates. Nor can it identify makes and models of vehicles.
"We hope that future versions of Toll-by-Plate will provide for better identification in terms of make and model of vehicles but as of today we are license-plate driven," Scaccetti said.
When 8 On Your Side contacted the Florida Turnpike Enterprise and the Tampa authority about Morales' improper billings, both agencies responded quickly.
The Tampa authority confirmed Morales was charged for transactions for a New York vanity plate. The authority also pulled Morales from collections. The Florida turnpike board also dropped added fees, fines and the ticket it had issued her.
Waggoner is not satisfied with his electronic tolling system. He says there is newer technology that reads plates more accurately and helps identify vehicles.
On Monday, he asked and his board approved contracts to purchase equipment and hire a contractor to install the Tampa authority can do its own image processing in house.
Waggoner says authority will work in conjunction with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise. The Tampa authority will process the video images; Florida Enterprise will do the billing.
"It's going to be enhanced-image processing software, so it will do a better job than what we're doing today," he said.
Waggoner wants the new system running by June 2013, when the Tampa authority's contract ends with Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp. of Texas.