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Fare Cards and Magnets

This reader has a problem so common among Metro riders that I thought I'd seek your advice.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I must say I've debated about who, at The Post, could best help me with a little problem I've been experiencing: Dr. Gridlock or Suzanne D'Amato in her fashion column. It's a dumb question that probably every commuter knows the answer to, but I clearly need some help.

A couple of months ago, I found that my Metro fare card, with plenty of money on it, wouldn't work. At the window I was told it had become de-magnetized. Solution: Go to Metro Center, to the Sales Office, to get new cards issued. I admitted that I suspected it was my purse, with its many magnetic closures. The guy was patient enough to let me experiment with exactly how magnetic they were. Once satisfied that I knew which sections of the purse to avoid, I left. It wasn't two weeks later that these brand new farecards were de-magnetized, too.

I'm not a daily commuter, so don't have a solution to this. So very many purses today, even wallets, have magnetic closures; so what do women commuters do to avoid this problem? I've even considered replacing the purse, but they all have magnets!

Fare cards seem particularly sensitive to the magnets. I've had no trouble at all with my credit cards, kept in similar areas of my purse. Or, am I totally misdirected? Could the culprit be my cell phone, as someone at Metro suggested?

Renee Domogauer
College Park

What anti-magnetic advice can you offer our reader?

I've had this problem with cards, and traced it to my clip-on sunglasses, which use magnetized edges to attach to the regular glasses. Haven't heard of the cell phone problem, though.

Malfunctioning fare cards can be exchanged or replaced after the malfunction is verified. You can go to a Metro sales office for an immediate replacement. Or a station manager can verify the malfunction and fill out a fare adjustment envelope for you. Keep the stub and drop the postage-paid, self addressed envelope in a mailbox so the replacement card can be mailed back to you.

You can get more information about exchanges of fare cards and tokens by calling Metro Customer Assistance at 202-637-1328. If you have problems with your SmarTrip card, call 888-762-7874.

By Robert Thomson  |  December 12, 2007; 5:33 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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Well there are some non-magnetic purses/bags -- i know because i have many! So she may just need to expand her search a little to find one that suits her needs w/o the magnets. The other thing I've learned is to keep the card away from my cell phone which seems to demagnetize also. I used to keep them in the same slot of my purse, but now i make sure they are separate.

Posted by: L | December 12, 2007 7:23 AM | Report abuse

Easiest solution: get a Smartrip card. Nothing to demagnetize.

Posted by: Brian | December 12, 2007 7:29 AM | Report abuse

My cell phone (Motorola Razor) has magnetic qualities. It can "pick up" paperclips.

Posted by: R | December 12, 2007 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Is that true, that SmarTrips can't become demagnetized?

Posted by: PQ | December 12, 2007 7:53 AM | Report abuse

Metro makes money when cards go bad and people buy another one instead of jumping through the hoop to get their buck-fifty back. So Metro's incentive is to NOT fix the problem. The Post's "answer" is just a rehash of the questioner's saga. The way to fix the problem is for Metro to fix the problem, not for the consumer, who is living a normal life in the presence of normal magnetic fields (which don't affect the other magnetic devices, which incidentally, are incentivezed to resist demagnetization). So, the solution for the consumer is probably a class action lawsuit.

Posted by: Earl | December 12, 2007 7:57 AM | Report abuse

One of the disadvantages of replacing fare cards that have become magnetized, bent or whatever causes it not to work properly, is that you have to pay $5.00 for each replacement. I think this is unfair to us, the consumer. Most of the time it is not our fault the card doesn't work.

Posted by: Donna Stewart | December 12, 2007 8:12 AM | Report abuse

Smart trip cards don't use magnetism to work, they have an RFID (radio frequency) chip which responds to the scanners on the gates. The regular paper cards have a magnetic strip like a credit card and these should be the only ones that are susceptible to demagnetization. Smart trip cards can be damaged by being bent or overheated (don't leave it on your dashboard on a sunny day).

Posted by: John | December 12, 2007 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Although there is a five dollar replacement cost if you lose a SmarTrip card, if it is malfunctioning or if your regular fare card is demagnetized, Metro charges nothing. It is a question of who is at fault, you or Metro.

Posted by: Faithful Rider | December 12, 2007 8:29 AM | Report abuse

I would caution against sending in the farecard for a replacement. I've known several people who have sent in cards and never received anything in return from Metro.

Posted by: M Street | December 12, 2007 8:58 AM | Report abuse

I've had numerous problems with my SmartTrip card becoming inactive if I keep it in my wallet (no magnets that I know of). But nothing will happen if I keep the SmartTrip card in a shirt pocket. Really annoying. And all the Metro managers can say is "go to Metro Center and get it replaced" but as an infrequent rider, I don't want to take an out-of-the-way side trip just for this.

Posted by: dgc | December 12, 2007 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Smartrip cards become worn out and suddenly stop working. then you are required to get a new one and it will NOT be the same # as your old one.if your company deducts from your paycheck to add money to your smartrip card, you will be out the money that goes to your nonfunctioning smartrip card, and it can take a month or more for the change of the new card number to to take effect. I have asked Metro about this and the answer from two different station managers is a shrug and advice to 'go to metro center and get the card replaced.' The smartrip card was 3 years old.

Posted by: katerp | December 12, 2007 9:12 AM | Report abuse

katerp I don't know why that happened for you but I have never had that issue. I have lost my card or had it stolen a few times and each time it has been easy to resolve.

My office transferred the SmartBenefits over to the new number so it would work the following month when I put it on the card. This doesn't take months. It just takes the HR person a couple minutes to input it on a website.

Also I never lost the money on the lost/stolen cards. All you have to do is call metro and they will freeze the value at the time you report it (provided the card has been registered). Very easy to transfer the value from the old card to the new one. It does take a couple days though but you won't lose it.

Posted by: Lost Card | December 12, 2007 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Agreed. Katerp, you aren't doing it right.

I periodically lose my Smarttrip card (3 times a year...i know, i know).

It takes a call to Smarttrip to change it to the new card's number, and the money moves over in a day or so.

I tell my employer to change my smartbenefits to download to the new card, and that also takes a day, max.

So yeah. months? you're doing this wrong.

Posted by: jare7 | December 12, 2007 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Easiest solution: get a Smartrip card. Nothing to demagnetize.

Posted by: Brian | December 12, 2007 07:29 AM

Yeah, well mine stopped working because of an ever so slight crack -- and it was in my wallet unless I was using it. I was told that I could mail it in for a replacement (if it was in fact Metro's "fault"), otherwise it would cost me another $5. I only have a few dollars on it, so I haven't done anything with it.

I only got it for the occasional time that I had to park in Greenbelt since I otherwise take the MARC.

Posted by: DLC1220 | December 12, 2007 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Simple solution to deal with the demagnetizing situation. Don't put the thing in your purse!!! If you know the purse is the culprit, don't put it there. I had similar problems with a wallet of mine and a purse. Now, I keep my metro card in my jacket pocket. It's completely separated from everything else and I've never had a problem since. If I'm not wearing a jacket, I pop the card in my jeans pocket or pants pocket. Sure it takes a little smarts to remember to put it in your pocket, but for me not having to hassle with an extra trip to Metro Center it's worth it.

As for who's fault it is that the fare cards suck in general. Well, I'll be the first to tell you that Metro has a lot of things that suck. They unfortunately are not proactive with anything they do so they continue to go about with the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality.

Posted by: LV | December 12, 2007 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Le Sportsac purses don't have magnets. Macy's at Metrocenter carries them.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 12, 2007 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I bought my SmarTrip card back in 1999 on the first day they were generally available and have never had a problem with it. True, I do not ride the Metro every day, and I now often go a month or more without riding, but I used to use it daily. I genuinely cannot understand why some people do not want to get one of these cards. The fumbling around with the paper cards and the queuing at the faregates seems to me to be a major nuisance, such that the $5 cost of the SmarTrip card is easily outweighed by the convenience of eliminating these things (not to mention that it's a lot easier to use SmarTrip when you are running for a train).

Posted by: Rich | December 12, 2007 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I second the poster's comment about Razr phones - I have one too, and if I put a farecard in the same pocket with it, it's almost a guarantee that it will get demagnetized. I realized this after a couple of times where I bought a card, and it already would not work by the time I went to exit a station several minutes later.

Posted by: Rosslyn, VA | December 12, 2007 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Another couple of things that could demagnetize a card (metro or credit, etc.) is eelskin (if your wallet or purse is made of it) or leaving it close to a microwave. I worked in retail for a while and this was common causes of demagnetized credit cards.

Posted by: Fuzzy Cat | December 12, 2007 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Rich, I completely agree with you that I love using the smart trip card. I don't think people really understand how much faster it is to use it (and how nice it is to not have to use two hands to take my card out, feed it through, put it away, etc.) Though I do understand the mentality of having to pay an extra 5 dollars for it. IMHO it's worth it to get one less starbucks venti coffee for it.

I've used metro for about 10 years and have never had a problem with the regular paper farecards or my smart trip card (used for the past 3 years). I would suggest keeping your farecard in a wallet or separate holder rather than just placing it in your purse/pocket. I do know of many friends whose cards have become demagnetized and it's always because they put it in the same pocket (in their coat or in their purse) as a cell phone. And if you get a smart trip card you don't have to take it out of the wallet. It works very well even if it is in the very center.

Posted by: Laura | December 12, 2007 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Rich, I completely agree with you that I love using the smart trip card. I don't think people really understand how much faster it is to use it (and how nice it is to not have to use two hands to take my card out, feed it through, put it away, etc.)

Yes, I for one know that I have saved many hours each week not fumbling that paper card into that tiny slot. And not using two hands to do it - wow!. Now I can use the other to talk into my cell or jam some more food/drink into my mouth to sustain my on my long trek across the city.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 12, 2007 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Renee needs to upgrade to a SmartCard, not change her handbag style. I have had my Smartcard for over six years and have had to replace it only once, fairly early on. While it was a hassle back in 2001, Metro has done wonders in updating their replacement procedures. As the Benefits administrator for a company that handles our Firm's SmartBenefits it is a piece of cake to get a replacement card these days, often within one week. Most of the replacements are on lost or stolen cards and the value is frozen with little or no lost value. The modifying of the new user ID is also a less then one minute action on the Employers part.
Another benefit to the Smart Card is being able to exit a station even if you don't have the full fare, great for when you are late or don't have change to add to exit.
Not only is the card more convenient but soon employers won't be able to purchase the papercards for their employees anymore, all will be required to switch over to the SmartBenefit (the eletronic transfer of Transit Benefits).

Posted by: Casey | December 12, 2007 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I too have had trouble with both farecards and SmarTrip cards.

First, the only reason I use farecards now is for the kids or visitors. I actually have two SmarTrip cards because an out of town visitor rented a car and wanted to park at a Metro garage and got stuck buying one.

I have had SmarTrip work when I enter a station and not work when I exit. The gate agent has waved me through and allowed me to send in my damaged card on the spot after I filled out my address. This is a lot easier than going to Metro Center.

The reason that they have failed is also because of the wallet, and I have also had cracked credit cards from my wallet. This is the kind of wallet that has staggered credit cards, and the unevenness over time bends the cards.

My solution was to use a plastic badge holder to attach to the lanyard for my ID badge. Because it also has RFID, I can't put both cards into the same holder, and it sometimes takes a couple of swipes of the SmarTrip because of the thickness of (or interference from?) the plastic holder.

An unrelated question for Dr Gridlock II: why is it that when I get on a bus after metrorail the SmarTrip card cannot detect that I have been on the rail and give me the discounted fare? Seems a bit silly to get a transfer and pay cash to get on a bus after using SmarTrip. The discount for a transfer adds up quickly.

Posted by: Peter | December 12, 2007 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Put the card in a foil lined envelope so you have some electromagnetic shielding?

Posted by: A | December 12, 2007 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Peter, I often use Metro and then hop on a Circulator or regular Metrobus, and the farebox only deducts $0.25 for the ride (and if I transfer again, it charges $0.00 -- it knows bus-to-bus is free.)

Posted by: Rick | December 13, 2007 11:25 PM | Report abuse

"Yes, I for one know that I have saved many hours each week not fumbling that paper card into that tiny slot. And not using two hands to do it - wow!. Now I can use the other to talk into my cell or jam some more food/drink into my mouth to sustain my on my long trek across the city."

No it's no hours saved of course, but faster none the less. I'm sure you have never sped through a yellow light in order to gain a few seconds while driving either.

And yes it does take two hands to take a paper card out of a wallet and put it back in the wallet. Maybe you have some amazing technique where you can get things out of your wallet with just one hand though. Want to teach me? My other hand is often full carrying grocery bags or a book (not a cell phone or food as you so idiotically assume).

Posted by: Laura | December 17, 2007 2:49 PM | Report abuse

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