No tolerance for fraud at ski resorts | TahoeDailyTribune.com

No tolerance for fraud at ski resorts

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

From a 52-year-old parent to a pair of young con artists from the Sacramento area, South Shore ski resorts are catching visitors trying to infiltrate the slopes with fraudulent passes.

Since Feb. 7, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department has detained about a dozen people who allegedly attempted to ski for free but were thwarted by lift operators who earn a bonus for such finds.

“It seems like a good idea until they’re going to jail,” said Sgt. Steve Stroot. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis and I think the cost doesn’t justify the benefit.”

Scams run from somebody borrowing a friend’s season pass to using an outdated pass. The most sophisticated involved two friends from Carmichael who got free rides about a dozen times this year before being discovered.

One 20-year-old attempted to board the Heavenly Ski Resort tram Feb. 8 when the lift operator believed the pass photo didn’t match his face. When asked his birthday, he immediately said the pass wasn’t his, that he found it on the street, officers said.

When told by a suspicious deputy of the crimes he committed — misuse of lost property, possession of stolen property and access card defraud — the suspect stuck to his story.

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It wasn’t until a Heavenly ticket manager brought the pass owner to the deputy that the true story unfolded. The owner, 21, was at the season pass office asking for a replacement when the manager became suspicious because she saw him hanging around when Babcock got busted.

When he grew hesitant about filing a lost property report and was pressed for the truth, he finally admitted he gave his pass to his buddy to use.

The owner was booked into El Dorado County Jail.

The lure to ride for free doesn’t just pertain to teenagers and young adults.

On Feb. 9, a 52-year-old father was busted for trying to use his friend’s Heavenly pass. The man, who works for the Marin Municipal Water District, immediately said the pass wasn’t his but that he had permission from his friend when the lift operator became suspicious of the photo.

He was cited and released by deputies and presumably went to meet his two young children.

Not all infiltrators go peacefully. When a 27-year-old San Francisco man was caught using a pass at Sierra-at-Tahoe, he walked into the woods and hid in a tree trunk. After being found by a security officer and escorted into an office, he denied he attempted to use a fraudulent pass.

After further interrogation, he retrieved the pass which he had hidden in a plastic container in the office.

One New Hampshire man fled after a Heavenly lift operator discovered a bad pass. He was found by sheriff’s deputies on Saddle Road. A South Lake Tahoe man was caught by Sierra security after he tried to get away after trying to use a pass from last year.

Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe said violators can be fined $300 for the infraction. Resorts can kick out violators for good. People who are repeat offenders or make tickets and passes can face stiffer penalties.

His office is attempting to move the infraction up to a misdemeanor by contacting the trade organization representing ski resorts.

The crime was made an infraction when lift tickets were still $20, Uthe said. Now, with day passes in the $50 to $60 range, Uthe would like to see more punishment.

“If you steal $70 worth of goods from Raley’s, you will be taken into custody and charged with a misdemeanor or more,” Uthe said. “I think resorts should have the same sort protection as other merchants.”

Another person who likes to see swift punishment is Todd Majoris, marketing director at Sierra.

Majoris said it’s the “core responsibility” for lift operators to catch snowboarders or skiers with bad passes. An electronic scanner used by Sierra and Heavenly checks the bar code on the pass to see if it is valid, as well as to track the number of visitors.

“We don’t take this stuff lightly,” Majoris said, adding a man was recently caught using a pass with a woman’s picture. “If somebody is defrauding us by using a different pass and we catch you, we will prosecute you and contact the authorities.”

Molly Cuffe, spokeswoman at Heavenly, agreed. With a season pass already at a unprecedented low $299, Cuffe said the resort is cracking down more than it has in the past.

“The point is we are watching it a bit more and will continue to do more so in the future,” she said.

— E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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