Paper clip trick breaks meters, earns drivers free parking

For students who choose to drive to class, there are a plethora of things to complain about: the lack of parking spaces, racking up parking tickets and forking over all that change. Those nickels and dimes can add up over the course of a semester, but some students have found a way around the problem.

They call it the “paper clip trick.”

The trick involves bending a paper clip in a certain way and inserting it into a parking meter. If done correctly, the parking meter reads the paper clip as a dollar coin, effectively obtaining an hour and twenty minutes of free parking time at University parking meters.

The trick is illegal, but some students are willing to take the risk.

One student said he uses the trick up to six times a day.

“For a while I felt bad about it,” the student said. “But looking back on all the parking tickets I’ve gotten, I feel like it kind of evens out.”

According to students, University officials, and the cities of Urbana and Champaign, the paper clip trick is nothing new.

Shirl Johnson, parking operations supervisor for Champaign, said people tampering with meters is a constant problem.

“We see it multiple times a day, everyday, ever since we’ve had meters,” Johnson said.

She said paper clips are not the only thing people use. Typically, people will insert “slugs” — foreign coins or tokens — into meters to try and get free parking. Johnson said parking meters will stop working if someone inserts a slug or a paper clip, and parking staff will then have to manually fix the meters.

She said sometimes workers have to take the meter apart completely to remove the obstruction. The process of fixing a meter takes about five to seven minutes, Johnson said, but the city of Champaign alone has 1,900 parking meters.

Johnson said the meters are programmed to differentiate among coins based on weight and density. For whatever reason, however, a paper clip bent in a certain way fools the meter.

The paper clip trick can provide parking free of charge, but it can also get the perpetrator into some trouble.

According to the Urbana Legal Division, if someone is caught in the act of tampering with a parking meter, that person can face a fine of up to $750. A person can also receive a citation for parking at a failed meter. Johnson said the city of Champaign’s ordinances are similar.

Both cities said they also reserve the right to notify the University if the offender is a student.

If the University was notified, it would impose some sort of punishment, said Judith Lateer, communications specialist for Facilities and Services.

“If someone were caught in the act, the University would take its own course of action,” she said in an e-mail interview. “It is a prosecutable offense.”

Lateer also said University parking enforcement is aware of students using paper clips to tamper with meters. She said parking enforcement staff runs into the problem every day.

She declined to comment on whether the University is attempting to fix the problem or stop people from inserting paper clips or other slugs into meters. But paper clip problem or not, the parking department is required to support itself financially, according to the University’s Facilities and Services Web site.

“Our entire parking system … is funded by the revenues collected from permit sales, meter revenue and citation revenue,” the Web site states.