A PPA parking ticket on a car windshield. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

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In many U.S. cities, including 5 of the 10 largest, you can pay a parking ticket online by looking it up with your license plate number. But you can’t do it in Philly — at least, not anymore.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority did provide that option over the past couple of years, but it turns out the convenience was just a temporary measure to help people “in unique situations created by the pandemic,” according PPA spokesperson Marty O’Rourke. There are no plans to bring it back, he said.

That’s adding extra steps for some residents trying to stay current on their violations.

After Lauren Vidas forgot to renew her residential parking permit, she found a ticket on her windshield for staying in a spot too long. She tossed it in her car, and then went on a planned trip out of town. When she got back, she couldn’t find the ticket anywhere.

She went onto the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s online portal to make the payment — but since she didn’t have the physical ticket, she couldn’t enter the ticket number, and the option to look it up by license plate number was gone. She ended up going into the PPA office to settle the fine in person and avoid any additional fees.

“Your license plate number, you know,” Vidas said. “But if you lose that little slip of paper … it just makes it really hard to give the city money.”

For Vidas, it wasn’t a huge hassle. “I had to go get my residential parking permit renewed, so I sort of made a day of it and went to the Reading Terminal Market and got some shopping done, so it was fine,” she said.

But it did leave her wondering about the reasons for the feature’s disappearance.

Although O’Rourke attributed the lookup feature to pandemic adjustments, several people said on Twitter they recall using the function before COVID. O’Rourke did not clarify whether it was possible to look up a violation by license plate alone at any point before the pandemic.

Ultimately, the PPA removed the feature last September. The portal currently asks for a ticket number, boot number, notice number, or payment plan number to make a payment.

The agency made the change for privacy and security reasons, according to spokesperson O’Rourke.

“[A]nyone could enter a license plate and see all tickets issued to that plate,” O’Rourke said, “and that is not public information. We stopped that process so we can verify that the person requesting the information is the registered owner.”

There was also at one point a third-party payment site, per O’Rourke, that took advantage of the open-ended license plate lookup and caused confusion for people trying to pay their fines.

A now-dormant Twitter bot called @HowsMyDrivingPA also took advantage of the lookup to expose vehicles with unpaid tickets. Inspired by a New York City account doing the same thing, the account would respond by listing outstanding parking violations whenever someone tweeted a license plate number and tagged the bot.

Once the PPA ditched the search-by-plate function and added a CAPTCHA security field last fall, the bot stopped working, according to account creator Aaron Bauman, a Philadelphia software engineer.

“PPA is extremely opaque in its operations, and that’s a generous assessment,” Bauman told Billy Penn. “It’s unfortunate that they feel the need to prevent this data from being published, when municipalities like NYC and DC make it available … it’s an important service to provide the slightest bit of transparency into their operations.”

Ways to pay your fine if you lost your ticket

It’s still possible to pay the fine associated with a lost ticket before you get hit with late charges — but it does require more patience than before.

If you don’t pay or dispute a parking ticket within 15 days, the PPA gets your name and address from the DMV, according to O’Rourke. Once the PPA receives that information, they send a “Notice of Violation” via U.S. mail. After that, you have 10 days before getting a mailed follow-up notice with late fees. Each of these notices has its own number, which can be entered to pay the ticket online.

There are a few other potential options to pay off a lost ticket. You can call 1-888-591-3636, DM the PPA on Facebook or Twitter, or email EngagePPA@philapark.org. (These options are only available Monday through Friday — from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for social media or email, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for phone.)

Visiting the PPA Parking Violations Branch in person — like Vidas did — works too. (That’s open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.)

When Vidas went to pay her ticket in person, the other person behind her in line was there for the same reason, she said, and a staffer told her that’s been common lately.

It’s unclear if there has actually been an uptick of in-person visits since the license plate lookup feature was removed from the PPA website last fall, since the agency doesn’t track that kind of information, per spokesperson O’Rourke.

Either way, it doesn’t look like the convenient feature is making a return to Philly anytime soon, even with CAPTCHA activated.

“Due to the high volume of internet fraud that the world has been experiencing,” O’Rourke said, “the authority feels that it is in the customer’s best interest to keep these protocols in place.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...