Richard Zaragoza’s E-ZPass customer service nightmare began nearly a year ago when the Delaware man’s mailbox filled up with E-ZPass violation notices from New Jersey.
Zaragoza repeatedly gave proof the violations weren’t his, but E-ZPass kept sending more notices.
More than 140 in all.
Zaragoza’s case concluded earlier this week with the arrest of a man who was the subject of a previous Bamboozled column.
Erich Niemann, owner of Restore the Shore Contracting, was arrested by state police and now faces criminal charges — third degree theft by deception and receiving stolen property — for using a license plate that was stolen from Zaragoza.
Niemann racked up nearly $50,000 in unpaid tolls and fees, although only a portion of that was linked to the stolen license plate, according to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
More on that in a moment.
It all started when Zaragoza received two E-ZPass violations on June 7, 2015. Both notices showed a photo of a large commercial trailer with a Delaware license plate.
But Zaragoza doesn’t have a large commercial trailer.
He does have a small boat trailer. He checked his registration and saw the tag listed on the violations matched the tag for his boat trailer.
“Clearly, the large trailer in the ‘First Notice’ photos bore no semblance to the type of trailer that was identified in the license tag’s registration,” Zaragoza said.
Zaragoza went to the boat yard and his tag was gone.
Zaragoza reported the stolen tag to police on June 10.
He then re-read the violation notices, which said if the violation occurred before a theft was reported to police, he still had to pay.
So he paid, but he attached an explanation about the theft. He never received a response.
“Ever since those first ‘First Notices’ were received, I have been deluged with ‘First Notices,’ ‘Second Notices,’ letters and ‘Final Notices’ based on the thief’s use of my stolen license tag on vehicles that he/she may own,” Zarazoga said.
In all, Zaragoza received more than 140 communications from E-ZPass.
One E-ZPass customer wants to know what he needs to do to get a response to his letters.
With each one, Zaragoza responded with letters of explanation, copies of the police report and copies of license registrations showing the tag was for a smaller trailer.
He never received a response.
“Repeatedly, E-ZPass has represented in its form letters that they ‘carefully reviewed’ my responses but E-ZPass continues to send me reminders and requests to pay,” Zaragoza said.
In November, Zaragoza tried another strategy, requesting his local motor vehicle agency in Delaware contact E-ZPass to straighten everything out.
Delaware sent a letter confirming Zaragoza wasn’t responsible for the violations, but that didn’t help either, and the notices kept coming.
By this time, E-ZPass started sending second notices for new violations with no first notice, so Zaragoza couldn’t even see what vehicles were using the stolen tag, he said.
Zaragoza continued to answer the violation notices with his evidence of the theft.
But still, the violations kept coming.
“E-ZPass needs to be made accountable by requiring it to demonstrate that it actually read my responses, that it truly gives full consideration to my undisputed representations and proof that the tag was stolen and is being used by persons unknown to me, that it officially close all past matters involving the stolen license plate, that it agree not to involve me in any other instances where someone may be using my stolen license plate, and that E-ZPass send me a letter to that effect,” Zaragoza said.
TO CATCH AN ALLEGED THIEF
We reviewed Zaragoza’s detailed timeline of his contact with E-ZPass, and we reached out to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority on his behalf.
On April 22, the agency called Zaragoza.
The representative had reviewed Zaragoza’s file and ordered the dismissal of all violations and a refund. She also said she would be on the lookout for any new notices so they could be intercepted before they were mailed.
“[She] apologized for the repeated notices and explained that Delaware continued to inform New Jersey that the tag was registered to me, even though it had expired,” Zaragoza said.
A car being transported to Florida was charged $129.37 in E-ZPass tolls
The representative also said the New Jersey State Police were on watch for the stolen tag.
One of the violation notices captured a business name on the side of a vehicle, said lead investigator Det. Thomas Holmes of the Troop D Criminal Investigation Office.
Holmes said investigators tracked the business to Niemann, and they found the vehicle in question with the stolen license plate attached.
“The vehicle was unregistered and uninsured, and [Neimann] did say it was his vehicle and he was aware that the plate was a trailer registration from Delaware, but beyond that, he refused to provide any information or comment,” Holmes said.
In total, Holmes said, the vehicle with the stolen plate went through 151 tolls, racking up $216 in toll charges. With fees, that total came to $5,666, according to the Turnpike Authority.
Niemann’s other vehicles accumulated another $1,674 in unpaid tolls after 829 trips, the authority said. With fees, the total owed is $42,699 and change.
The third degree theft by deception charge carries a maximum of five years in prison, while the stolen property charge is considered a disorderly persons offense and is handled on the municipal court level.
The charges come on top of other legal trouble for Niemann’s businesses.
Back in August 2015 when we wrote about a reader’s dispute with Niemann’s Restore the Shore Contracting, 15 civil lawsuits had been filed against Niemann and/or his seven companies. Six of the lawsuits resulted in judgments against Niemann or his companies.
Public records show three more lawsuits against him and/or his companies since that time. Two resulted in judgments.
In December 2015, Niemann started a new company called Restore Funding, public records show. There are no lawsuits against it.
As of August 2015, the Division of Consumer Affairs had 11 complaints against the companies. There are now 17. The division said the basic allegations are “non-fulfillment, failure to provide a refund, unsatisfactory repair, and unconscionable commercial practice. All are under review.”
The Turnpike Authority said it’s working with management at the E-ZPass customer service center so similar incidents can be better handled in the future.
“We can’t prevent people from stealing license plates, but we can do a better job of communicating with victims like Mr. Zaragoza,” spokesman Tom Feeney said. “The process should not have been this difficult for him.”
We’ll keep you posted on the case.
Zaragoza said he’s happy his E-ZPass nightmare is over.
“I hope that the person or persons who stole and fraudulently used my license plate, and who caused me almost a year’s worth of anxiety and drudgery responding to the seemingly endless E-ZPass notices of toll violations, are punished to the maximum extent of the law,” he said.
Staff researcher Vinessa Erminio contributed to this report.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.