SF Welcomes Me Home … Clipper, Not So Much

Inside a Translink/Clipper card
Photo by 0x0000org

When we returned from our honeymoon, everything in my purse that wasn’t a foreign ticket stub or Euro coin looked funny. That includes my work badge, our woefully monochrome U.S. currency, and my Clipper card. Even though it also got to enjoy a three-week break, it completely failed me on my first commute to work, indicating that, 1) Vacation Brain is contagious and will rub off on your possessions, or 2) a bunch of things conspired to go pretty effing wrong. So, here’s my cautionary tale, should you find yourself in a similar sitch.

1. Tara exits turnstiles at 24th and Mission BART station after a sleepy ride back from SFO. Clipper cash balance falls below threshold; Autoload triggered, just as it should.

2. On first commute back to work two days later, BART turnstiles say “see agent.” Agent shows, on his little machine thingie, a message that says, “BAD DEBT” (all caps, very scary). A customer-service call is in order. BART ticket must be purchased. (I am Tara’s boiling fit of not-really-contained public rage.)

3. Clipper Rep #1 says there’s nothing wrong with the account. Maybe the card itself is broken, she suggests? Add Fare machines couldn’t read it, so this seemed likely. (How much will it cost me if I don’t get a new card right away? Will I get a refund? I am Tara’s frustrated, tearful self-pity.)

4. Tara calls Clipper back to say, yes, something must be wrong with the card. Clipper Rep #2 checks into it further, and, at some point, mentions the last four digits of the credit card on file. This is an old card that does not exist! Ah: Clipper Rep #2 says this is why I have “bad debt,” triggered by the Autoload a couple days ago. But! It was updated! (Right? Hmm…)

5. Tara learns that she did, in fact, update her information in July. Tip: Always ALWAYS keep confirmation emails from Clipper when you update information; they contain reference numbers that should help if/when they don’t know what you’re talking about. She makes third call to Clipper that morning. (I am Tara’s violently flashing incompetency-radar.)

6. Clipper Rep #3 has no idea what Tara is talking about with this “bad debt” and “card not working” business. Everything looks fine, just as it did to Clipper Rep #1. No, no. Something is wrong. Look harder. Tara eventually gets the equivalent of, “Oh, there it is.” Info was updated correctly by the user, but it failed to be processed by Clipper.

Tip for riders: Just as with this guy, you may get three different answers to the same question. Persist until you’re blue in the face when you know something is wrong, even if they say it’s not.

Tip for Clipper: Maybe when someone’s Autoload triggers “bad debt” and completely freezes a person’s account, it should, um, be a little more obvious to your phone reps.

7. Many really shitty minutes go by as Tara listens to the worst on-hold music in the history of customer-service calls (talk about “that’s saying a lot”). Clipper Rep #3 says, to fix it, Tara must fax a form (can’t be done online or on the phone) updating the bank information again. They promise it will probably (you never know!) be resolved by tomorrow morning’s commute. After she asks for one, they promise a refund for that morning’s in-city BART expense.

The Sequel

  • Clipper works on BART the next morning.
  • It does not work on an F-car shortly thereafter; machine says the account is bad. (Nnoooooooo!!)
  • It works again on an F-car on the commute home and has continued to work ever since.
  • Refund processed.
  • Sanity mostly intact.


  • Marcie

    I just discovered that when I thought I loaded a high value BART ticket onto my Clipper card online – the thing defaulted to cash. We will see what happens as the nice (but sounding harassed) woman I talked to at Clipper customer service submitted my complaint to her supervisor and said she will call me back. She seemed to know that I was supposed to have a HV BART ticket loaded but it didn’t work. Sigh…. We will see if I get a call back.

  • Heather

    Just started using my card. I got a new little wallet thing so i acutally dont have to take the card out and i can just beep it though the wallet, LIKE I SEE EVERONE ELSE DO. well half the time i have to wave the card a few times, im in and out of bart and muni all day. So twice today at Bal Bart it said see agent cause it just would not beep and even though i had to hit it twice going out of bart i really did not have a problem after that. May be i am just not card beeper savvy. I try to aim for the chip!

  • Not terribly related to your story, but I submitted a customer service email to Clipper in July… and they called me back about it LAST WEEK! Luckily I figured it out in the mean time. 🙂

  • I’d stay away from the autoload program. Just keep track of your expenses carefully and add value manually.

    Some forget to update their credit card when they get issued a new one or the old one is just about to expire. From my understanding, they will hotlist the card and block it until it is resolved.

    • I hear what you’re saying about avoiding autoload. But you realize that what happened to Tara in this story was absolutely not her fault, right? She did everything right, most importantly, hanging onto confirmation emails. But yeah, I get your point about autoload. I’ll keep mine on, since it’s really all I use (I don’t have FP), until or unless I experience the kind of meltdown Tara did.

    • Marcie

      But then you are unable to get BART high value tickets – you can only get those on Clipper with autoload unless I am missing something. I want to support Clipper and since I now have to get my Muni fast pass loaded on there it would be nice not to have to carry around paper tickets from BART. I know it is only $4 but geeze, can this be more of a pain?

      • Some good news, BART is asking MTC (the folks running Clipper) to allow folks to buy BART HVD tickets without the need to use autoload. No set date as of now.

  • I love my Clipper card. Occasionally a turnstile at BART won’t work and I just have to try a different one. Otherwise, great little gadget that I never have to think about. Love the autoload.

  • Henry Larry

    That sounds like a nightmare. Kudos to you for keeping your cool through it all. Clipper seriously needs to step up their game in terms of communication and problem solving.
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