Number plate thieves and fat-fingered punters who type in the wrong plate number have caused a bit of grief for Z's Pay by Plate system.
The energy company and service station operator confirmed there had been problems after issues were raised on a north-west Auckland Facebook community group, but told the Herald such issues were "occasional", that it took security seriously and that there were ongoing efforts to improve the app.
When all goes to plan, Z's Pay by Plate contactless payment system, available at 61 of its 220 petrol stations around NZ, is a time-saver. You register your number plate and credit card number on Z's smartphone app. Then, when you pull up at a station, your plate is scanned and you can fill up without any need to pay at the pump or in-store.
But there have also been instances of the system being exploited, and customer gaffes that see the wrong person charged.
"Someone has stolen my license plate and used it to fuel up at the Z in Massey and drove away. I got a letter from Z saying I owe $80, but the photo shows two males whom I do not recognize and it's ... wait for it ... not my vehicle! I reported it to the police and they said this crime is on the rise. So check to make sure you have all your plates before driving out and about," a local posted to a Kumeu/Riverhead community Facebook page.
One member replied, "Happened to me at Westgate then he went to fuel at Z Kumeu."
And another weighed in, "I had the same kind of thing but with using the Pay by Plate on the Z app, I went into buy a chocolate bar only then got a notification on my Z app that I had just filled my car but I hadn't - someone had typed in my plate number!
Luckily I got a refund from Z but have stopped using the app to fill up."
Three others chimed in with similar stories.
The Herald forwarded (anonymised) copies of the posts to Z.
External communications and government relations manager Victoria Crockford replied, "Yes, we're aware of this happening on occasion, and it is something we take extremely seriously.
"Where customers have had their Pay By Plate payment details used due to a stolen vehicle, we disable the number plate they've registered to their account so it will no longer be able to make transactions."
Crockford said there was an option for Z Pay by Plate users to enable a lock/unlock option in the app, which sends a message to the users' smartphone when an attempt was made to buy petrol with their plate.
"If they're not at a service station, customers can ignore the notification and the pump will remain locked. This adds another layer of authentication prior to a transaction."
In terms of the customer who was charged for another person's fill-up after they mistyped a plate number, Crockford said, "This has happened on the rare occasion, and it is something we cover explicitly in our Terms and Conditions to ensure customers understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to accurately inputting their information into Z App. When it has occurred, we've worked directly with the customers to resolve it".
The Herald was able to register an incorrect plate number when opening a Z Pay by Plate account. The app does not cross-check a name and plate number with NZTA, or any other source, and does not ask for the make and model of your vehicle.
Asked if an NZTA cross-check could be added to the sign-up process, Crockford said: "We're currently working on how we might evolve pay by plate based on our customer experiences, so we can't say that this would be a solution as it's an ongoing piece of work.
"As with any new technology, we are constantly evolving pay by plate according to customer need, and we're currently working on ways to improve these systems."
Police put the screws on number plate theft
A police spokesman said there had not been a spike in license plate theft in the Waitematā district recently, but that there were periodic reports of the crime.
He said people should keep an eye on their bank account, and recommended the Safer Plates programme which sees community constables and Community Patrols NZ staff upgrade license plates to tamper-proof screws that make them much harder to nick - at least without tearing the plate in the process.
"We encourage members of the community to take advantage of Safer Plates events run by our partners Community Patrols New Zealand, with support from Police," the spokesman said.
"These run regularly across the west Auckland area, and other parts of Auckland as well."
The Safer Plates events are free, but a gold-coin donation to your local CPNZ is requested.
Police did not immediately supply plate theft numbers for 2020. But in March 2013, as the Safer Plates initiative was launched, the Herald reported that thieves pinched more than 400 car number plates across west Auckland in the prior year, often using them to get away with petrol drive-offs and other vehicle-related crimes. A significant number of those plates were stolen from carparks.
Individual thefts are small potatoes, or even comic - the Massey Community Patrol - related "a daring high speed chase reaching speeds of up to 30 kms per hour due to a very sick sounding moped engine" after a plate was stolen from a Suzuki Swift then attached to a 55cc motorbike - whose owner further reduced his odds of outgunning a pursing CPNZ vehicle by attempting to balance a pizza and bottle drink.
But collectively, drive-offs cost Z big money.
Z refused to name the technology suppliers involved in its Pay by Plate app.
Its precursor, Z Fastlane, launched in 2019, features as a case study on the website of Rush Digital, the Auckland-based developer of the Ministry of Health's NZ Covid Tracer App.
The Pay by Plate app works with CCTV and number plate recognition software.
Crockford would not comment on technology partners but said local firm Auror, which in 2018 created a security system to help Z address its "$2m per year" problem with drive-offs, was not involved with the Pay by Plate system.