Suburban Express Took The First Bus To The Streisand Effect. Have They Disembarked In Time?

There are many rules governing sensible protection of your company's online reputation. The first is simple, if vague: to quote Wil Wheaton, don't be a dick.

If you've been a dick, there's no need to despair. Everybody has a bad day now and then, and the internet is basically a big old bag of dicks, so your dickery may quickly be forgotten. Redemption is within your reach.

Unless, that is, you double down, and triple down, and quadruple down.

"Doubling down" means that, when called out for being a dick, you retaliate by being even more of a dick. The infamous Charles Carreon doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down in his dispute with The Oatmeal and with a satirical blogger. Paul Christoforo doubled down. Craig Brittain of "Is Anybody Down?" doubled down. Ranaan Katz doubled down.

When you double, triple, and quadruple down on online dickery, you place yourself beyond easy reputational redemption, and instead face the full force of the Streisand Effect.

Illinois bus company Suburban Express learned this lesson over the past week. But even though they engaged in online dickery, and even though they doubled down, having caught a glimpse of the Streisand Effect, they are now retreating furiously from the precipice and avoiding the fatal triple- and quadruple-down. But has their change of strategy come soon enough?

Pick A Fight With Reddit! What Could Go Wrong?

Suburban Express provides shuttle-bus services to Illinois universities. I learned about them when, through their attorney, they wrote to a moderator of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, threatening a libel suit based on Reddit postings.1

Folks on the UIUC subReddit became actively interested in Suburban Express when University of Illinois student Jeremy Leval wrote a Facebook post claiming that he witnessed a Suburban Express driver berating a passenger for not speaking English well. When Suburban Express sued Leval, havoc ensued, and reporters discovered that Suburban Express was filing quite a large number of small claims lawsuits against local students.

Suburban Express' litigation strategy depends upon its terms and conditions — you know, those things that you click to accept without reading.

In the event that your ticket is altered, multiple copies of your ticket are collected by driver(s), your ticket is used for transportation on the wrong date or trip or between the wrong stops, you agree to pay the applicable full fare plus $100 for each invalid, altered or duplicate ticket collected, and authorize us to charge your credit card for same.

If passenger or passenger parent / friend / companion / ride interferes with or delays departure of bus in any way, engages in disruptive behavior, or uses offensive or aggressive language in dealing with company, company employees, subcontractors, or subcontractor employees, you agree to pay Suburban Express the amount of $500 for liquidated damages sustained by Suburban Express resulting from the aforementioned actions, and authorize us to charge your credit card for same.

If an attorney is retained to contact you in relation to any violation of the terms and conditions contained herein, you agree to pay said attorney a minimum of 3/4 hour at the prevailing rate.

You agree to direct all questions and concerns pertaining to credit card charges or credits to Suburban Express / Illini Shuttle IN WRITING at PO Box 4048, Lisle, IL 60532.

You agree to pay any and all collection costs, including attorney’s fees, should collection or other legal action become necessary, and that the agreed venue for any legal action arising out of this transaction shall be Ford County, Illinois.

In other words, if you accept Suburban Express' terms and conditions, even though you go to school in Champaign County, they will say you're agreeing you can be sued in a different county, that you'll pay their attorney to demand money from you, that you'll pay their attorney fees if they sue you, and that you'll pay a flat $500 if they think you or your friends have been rude to Suburban Express.2 Asked why they seek to litigate in Ford County, Suburban Express responded breezily:

“Wide-open court calendar, easy parking, and service with a smile,” the bus company said in the email, adding that distance is also a factor. The Ford County courthouse is located in Paxton, Ill., the county seat; the courthouse is 26.3 miles from Champaign and 111 miles from Chicago, according to Google Maps road directions.

I believe the "service with a smile" part. When I called the clerks of the court in Ford County, seeking copies of some of Suburban Express' filings, I found them to be the most pleasant, helpful, and kind people I had spoken to all month.3 They swiftly faxed me a copy of Suburban Express's small claims complaint against Jeremy Leval, which I have uploaded (redacted to remove his address) here. As you can see, Suburban Express attaches its terms and conditions and asserts that Mr. Leval's own online accounts of his ride show that he violated the "disruption" clause above — in other words, that he was the aggressor in the incident in which he says he observed driver rudeness. Suburban Express is demanding $500 in liquidated damages4 plus fees and costs.

Thanks to the helpful people in Ford County, I reviewed other complaints as well, which I picked at random from the docket showing the many cases they have filed this year. Suburban Express' pattern is consistent: they send a demand letter alleging some breach of their terms, demand damages, and if they don't get them sue in small claims court in Ford County. The complaints I've seen are bare-bones and formulaic and rather vague. Notably they are coy about when and exactly how the alleged violations of Suburban Express' terms occurred. This is significant: I've reviewed, for example, a letter from January 2013 dunning a student for a violation that allegedly occurred in 2011. How many students can remember exactly which bus they took in 2011 and exactly what they did with the paperwork?

There's only way that filing lots of small claims cases like this is economically feasible: if the vast majority of defendants don't fight them. Students living in a different county represent the perfect targets for such litigation. They don't have income that will let them hire lawyers, they are busy with school, they may have trouble getting transportation to court, they're easily intimidated, and after graduation they will be concerned about their credit and easy to bully into paying judgments.

Students learning about this litigation campaign were, understandably, quite angry, leading stories of Suburban Express to spread more quickly over social media. But it was not the lawsuits alone that fueled outrage — it was Suburban Express' threats. In addition to the Reddit threat above, I have reviewed threats from both Suburban Express and their attorney to multiple people based on expression on multiple review and social media sites. I am not naming the other threat recipients because I am concerned that doing so could expose them to harassment by Suburban Express; if Suburban Express intuits who has forwarded threats to me and retaliates, I will not hesitate to put up the Popehat Signal and secure pro bono representation for the people threatened based on their speech.

Suburban Express' threats, as the Reddit threat suggests, are highly problematical. Suburban Express plays fast and loose with the difference between allegedly false statements of fact — which can be the basis for a defamation claim — and statements of opinion, which are protected by the First Amendment when they do not imply false statements of fact. Courts are much more likely to view statements on the internet as opinion rather than fact. For instance, Suburban Express takes issue with a statement of Reddit that they are "likely to sue you," saying that given their number of riders it is actually statistically unlikely they will sue you. But given Suburban Express has sued at least 125 people in 2013, this is the sort of statement that will almost certainly be taken as an opinion or rhetorical flourish rather than a false statement of fact. Second, Suburban Express doesn't seem familiar with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects hosts (like, say, Reddit or a Reddit moderator) from the words of guests (like people who comment on Reddit or a blog.). All of Suburban Express' defamation threats I have reviewed are either very vague (which, as I often say here, are a reliable hallmark of meritless thuggery) or target protected communication. Suburban Express may not be familiar with Illinois' anti-SLAPP statute, which would provide a mechanism to dismiss the defamation lawsuits early and secure fees for the defendants. In short, Suburban Express' defamation threats are highly dubious.

Consequences Will Never Be The Same!

What's remarkable about this case is how rapidly the Streisand Effect unfolded: it went from zero to "catastrophic reputation damage" in less than a week. That's the consequence of widespread social media and internet use amongst college students. In addition to multiple Reddit threads and articles in the Daily Illini, Suburban Express was soon looking down the barrel of posts at Ars Technica and BoingBoing.

To their credit, Suburban Express and one of their attorneys are now trying to fix things. I corresponded with Suburban Express' attorney, and found him to be polite, professional, and very clearly trying to repair the situation as swiftly as possible. I've also now corresponded with Dennis Toeppen, owner of Suburban Express, who wrote me on Sunday and answered some questions I put to him.5

In short, Suburban Express and their attorney have withdrawn the defamation threat against the Reddit moderator, and say they will dismiss the small claims case against Mr. Leval. Mr. Toeppen followed up by telling me this:

Based on a email which I received after I pressed send on the email to you, I have decided we are going to take the following action:

1) Dismiss all the Ford County suits so that we can take a step back from this.

2) Engage individuals in settlement discussions, so that they have yet another opportunity to make good on their deal with us.

3) Re-file cases where we are not able to come to an agreement, giving people an opportunity to change venue to Champaign county by mutual agreement.

You can read my full correspondence with Mr. Toeppen here. On the one hand, Suburban Express is taking a certain amount of responsibility and responding to complaints. On the other, Mr. Toeppen is indulging in something he's previously done in statements to the press: pointing fingers and taking shots at others.

We're going to have to take a close look at our ticketing/admission/accounting workflow. We started web ticketing back in 2008, and had very few fraud problems initially. But those are the good old days, it seems. Nowadays, we have frequent fraud. The problem has gotten much worse since our archrival, LEX Express, went belly up in December. I get a sense that LEX riders were accustomed to cheating LEX, and now we're dealing with them.

We would have preferred that Mr Leval gather information and report the incident to us, rather than creating a scene on the bus.

. . . and so on.

Lessons . . . If You Want To Learn Them

Right now, as a result of its conduct, Suburban Express' pool of potential customers is limited to people who have never heard of them. I didn't go to business school but I think that's not how marketing is supposed to work.

But has Suburban Express irretrievably beshat itself? I don't know, but it seems very likely. Mr Toeppen's emails to me — sent when he knew I was investigating the story from a First Amendment attorney's perspective, sent in an effort to get their side of the story out — don't bode well. It seems unlikely that Suburban Express can resist its pattern of lashing out. If they abandoned their current raft of litigation and started afresh, they might come back.

If they want to come back, they might think about a few lessons.

First, never miss a good opportunity to shut up. That may sound like a strange thing for a blogger to say, but I'm not running a public relations campaign. Most of the statements Suburban Express has made have served to inflame customers, not soothe them. An angry and defiant to a customer complaint — particularly on the internet — may be worse than no response at all.

Second, take some time to get a grip. You will not encounter a situation where waiting 48 hours to open your mouth will destroy your brand. But you will often encounter a situation where making a statement in the heat of the moment, without getting good advice, and without people convincing you not to talk like an ass, will ruin your reputation.

Third, know thy enemy. As I said in a recent article about the Streisand Effect in the Daily Journal:

Before sending a takedown demand to a web site, spend some time getting to know its culture to assess the probable effect of your letter. Some websites pride themselves in making rude public responses to legal threats. Other sites are frequented by free speech advocates likely to call attention to your demand letter. In 2012, an Arizona attorney sent a defamation threat to the popular webcomic “The Oatmeal,” only to find himself the subject of a brutally satirical comic that drew millions of views online, mainstream media coverage, and widespread denunciation. Don’t be in the position of telling your client [after the fact] “I didn’t realize this web site had a hundred thousand daily readers and a habit of printing and denouncing threat letters.”

Fourth, know what you are talking about before you talk big. Again from my recent article:

A legally unsupportable demand is far more likely to trigger the Streisand Effect. Bloggers love to call out lawyers who don’t know the law. To reduce your risk, don’t send a takedown letter until you have educated yourself about the law governing online content. For instance, too many lawyers threaten web sites based not only on content written by the site owners, but on comments left by visitors. But Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act dramatically limits a web site’s liability for comments left by third parties. See, e.g., [Barrett v. Rosenthal], (2006) 40 Cal. 3d 44 (2006). Similarly, too many lawyers don’t grasp the distinction between statements of fact – which are susceptible to defamation analysis – and statements of opinion – which often are not. California courts recognize that the internet Internet disputes produce exaggeration and fiery rhetoric, and are more likely to interpret online statements as mere insults or opinions rather than actionably false statements of fact. See, e.g., [Chaker v. Mateo], (2012) 209 Cal. App. 4thth 1138 (2012). Finally, too few lawyers are familiar with California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which allows a defamation defendant to secure a swift dismissal and attorney fees when a case lacks merit. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § Section 425.16.

If you are new to this area of law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation ( and the Digital Media Law Project ( have excellent guides.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong, or at least didn't anticipate modern America: there are second acts in American life. Just ask Mayoral aspirant Anthony Weiner. But if you're trying to sell something with an internet presence, it's much safer to the get first act right.

Edited on April 29, 2013 to add: Overnight, it appears that Suburban Express dramatically altered their terms and conditions.6

  1. The threatening letter is here.  
  2. That's called a contract of adhesion; whether it is enforceable is a subject too complex for this post.  
  3. Bear in mind I am a lawyer in Los Angeles.  
  4. Liquidated damages are damages that are specified at a particular amount in a contract in the case of a particular contingency. Their enforceability, again, is beyond the scope of this post.  
  5. Because Suburban Express' attorney was professional with me, I immediately wrote him and told him his client was corresponding with me. Usually you wouldn't want your client doing that and you'd be enraged if they did. Fucking clients. Here, apparently, it was deliberate.  
  6. The new terms remove the Ford County venue selection clause and the vague "pay $500 if you are rude" clause, but retains this: "You agree to pay any and all collection costs, including attorney's fees, should collection or other legal action become necessary."  

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    > to quote Wil Wheaton, don't be a dick.

    If only Wil himself followed that advice.

    I don't want to infringe on Wil's right to smoke weed / make movies / speak his mind / engage in three ways / take private pilot lessons / play video games / paint himself purple and roll around on canvas / own a winnebago / go sky diving / buy fireworks / marry a guy / eat meat / drink vodka till he spews / create an epic new board game / ET-MOTHER-!@##-ing-CETERA.

    …and I wish he'd return the favor by not pissing on an organization that I and other legal gun-owners use to stick up for one of our rights.

  2. says

    Clark: I support the Second Amendment. But that's entirely different than supporting the NRA, which — at the moment — is trying to point the finger and movies and video games and suggest they should be censored. So, I agree with Wil: FUCK THE NRA.

    But that's irrelevant to this post.

  3. Alan Bleiweiss says

    So is Suburban Express going to scrap their entirely blatant ripoff mentality in their terms of service?

    Because as far as I'm concerned, claiming they're going to take a step back, and using marketing language to come across as if they're going to rethink their ways in order to be better is just total farce usually left to the most obnoxious members of State and Federal government who don't give a damn about reality.

    And I hope they realize that unless they truly do scrap their entire shake-down TOS for more reasonable, respectable and consumer friendly terms, the long term will inevitably pull them right back into the Streisand Effect. Except if it happens down the road, there won't be any salvaging…

    Disclaimer: The statements made here are my opinion, not subject to legal action by Suburban Express. Translated this means Hey Suburban Express – keep your asshat threats to yourself…

  4. ketchup says

    Regarding the "likely to sue" issue, quite probably it is true even if it is taken as "fact", and not "opinion". That is because "likely" is a relative term, and presumably the person who made the comment did not specify "likely" relative to what. Even if Suburban Express sues fewer than half of their customers, they still sue a larger percentage of their customers than most other transportation companies in Illinois, I'd bet. So it is very probably true that Suburban Express is more likely to sue you compared to transportation companies. So it is quite reasonable and true factual advice that if one wants to minimize one's chances of being sued, one should choose other transportation options.

  5. AlphaCentauri says

    Toeppel is a domainer, i.e., he has registered domain names at the usual annual rate and paid to renew them for however many years he felt he still had a chance to sell them at a profit. That's not so unusual. But his choice of which domains he thought to register might be telling, such as this one:

  6. Matthew Cline says

    In a statement provided to The Daily Illini on April 24, Suburban Express wrote: “We carried about 100,000 passengers in the past year. Imagine what would happen on a day when we’re running 75 buses (as we did on three occasions this academic year) if 5% of the students decide to ride the wrong bus, ask for a bus to wait for them, claim they bought a ticket but forgot to BRING it, or in general ask for special treatment. Imagine the effect that all of this would have on the other 95%. It would be chaos.”

    Y'know, I don't think other bussing companies have to sue over a hundred customers a year, and include over-the-top clauses in their terms and conditions, in order to prevent chaos.

  7. OngChotwI says

    With the Prenda case, the more dubious lawyers scribble a letter or two and claim that's their signature. I notice a similar issue with this lawyer's signature. Do they have special classes in law school where the good lawyers are shown how to sign their whole name clearly, and the bad apples on how to get away with little more than an X and having someone else who can write legibly state that the X was signed by the person that was supposed to sign the form?
    (Feel free to point out that I'm basing this on such a small number of samples that it's statistically useless.)

    Those that point to video games and movies as the reason we have people abusing handguns/rifles seem to miss out on the fact that all the gun toys, spaghetti westerns (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) also included repeated comments from parental units on what to do and not to do with loaded/unloaded weapons. The schools had actual gun safety classes. Pointing a real gun at someone and pulling the trigger because it's funny – was something that was supposed to be excised from students in such classes (or from parental supervision of you with the weapon.)

    I'm also wondering about the size of Mr. Toeppen's feet – as he seems to be doing a great job of shooting himself there. Is this because he's using an ankle holster that's pointed at the foot, and hasn't figured out that you don't pull loaded weapons from a holster by clutching the trigger tightly?

  8. says

    I'm of mixed mind on this. On the one hand, I think admitting your wrong and trying to fix things is the admirable and right thing to do. On the other, if you're acting like a completely dick when you think you hold the cards, then have a change of heart only after realizing the consequences of what you did are much worse then you ever though, I'm going to be a little more skeptical of the sincerity. Setting up a business model that seems to necessarily depend on exploiting vulnerable/less sophisticated people is pretty loathsome. I guess I'll give them credit for trying to do the right thing irrespective of their motivation – but if they went out of business, I'm pretty sure my sympathy quota would have already been filled.

  9. Salguod says

    As I read their response, they have not so much disembarked from the Streisand Effect bus as made a brief pit stop for refreshments and a bio break.

    Also, footnote #5 is awesome.

  10. says

    @Clark – he did a little too good of job as that creepy serial killer in Criminal Minds, I'm with you.

    @Oomph – that is just amazing. I personally don't give a crap about profanity, but I can't see how anyone would tolerate their employees using it with customers, especially when the employee is the sole one using it and going there right out of the gate. Even if your boss tolerates that – how would anyone not understand that someone might be a little upset by a cancellation. I'm thinking "I'm sorry that you're inconvenienced and I know it may seem lame, but we would just lose too much money|our hands are tied here absent another bus driver|other reason.

    I'm going out on a limb here, but if Jennifer is married, I'm guessing that her husband drinks heavily

  11. Kat says

    See, if the contract had been reasonable in the slightest, I think the bad effects on their reputation would have been greatly reduced. The problem is that it's predatory and almost looks as if it's crafted to get a bad response. And they're all, "Well, we'll try settling the disputes out of court and THEN we'll sue if that doesn't work."

    No, if you want to repair your reputation then you will drop the suits and revise your contract. Even if someone WAS trying to defraud you and you're currently suing them to regain your losses, it's going to cost you more in public relations problems to address it now than it would to just let the person go and revise your contract to something less creepy and THEN enforce it when the person comes back and tries to defraud you again. (Because they always do come back and try it again if it works once.)

  12. says

    Full disclosure: I have done a fair bit of programming work for this guy on and off over the years, so I am probably a bit biased. Overall, having known the guy for a while, I'd say he's scrupulously honest, but sometimes a bit of a jerk. In particular, I think he reacts a lot more strongly than most people do when other people are being dishonest. So, yeah, bad judgment in this case, but while I don't think he made a good call, I have no doubt at all that he is acting in good faith.

    I dunno what to make of this all. I'm not a big fan of the idea of suing college kids. On the other hand, I've been watching the headaches from crazy parents doing crazy things, and the various fraud attempts, for years. The lawsuits aren't part of the business model, and they aren't the first thing he tried. They're a (poorly-considered, I think) attempt to enforce basic terms like "don't print three copies of your ticket and have two friends try to get on two other buses that are going to the same place."

    I really don't know whether other companies have fewer fraudsters in the first place, or keep credit card information for a while so they can just charge their penalties without going to court, or just write the fraud off as a cost of doing business. I am a little curious about it, really.

  13. Ec the Illinois Student says

    As a University of Illinois student, I can add that Suburban Express's distrustful practices are not only limited to their passengers. Not too long ago, I was at O'Hare Airport looking for a ride to Champaign on short notice (and, thus, without a reservation). Two bus lines were both willing to let me ride if they had an empty seat as long as I paid the fair in cash, but the Suburban Express driver told me that even if he had an empty seat, the management had ordered him to let no one on without a ticket purchased in advance.

    Incidentally, one of those other bus lines is now sending out emails saying, "It has been brought to our attention, a competitor in Champaign has filed 96 lawsuits against UI students in the past 3 months. These are due to improper use of a ticketing system. We are happy to inform you we have 0 lawsuits pending and would like your help in spreading the word about the friendly, professional service at PCC. Save $2 per ticket until the end of April by using promo code: "nolawsuits.""

  14. matw2 says

    The way I read the response is:

    "Now we've shown our (former) customers how serious we are about taking them to court for damages, we're going to dismiss without prejudice and try to extort the money from them all over again. Pay us or you're going right back to court."

    Did I miss something? That's not trippling down on the douchebaggery?

  15. says

    @Seebs – fair enough but you have me wondering – how do you have a system in place that's so ripe for shenanigans of that sort? If your vulnerable to it – you have a few options – first, spend a very little bit of money to write barcodes on your passes and scan them. Or you can leave it wide open and try to respond after the fact. Even if one wants to claim the cost is too much (you could implement it very cheaply – especially if it's such a problem that you're already losing money), there's plenty of low tech solutions that could fix it. I'm sure they probably deal with a lot of scammers and can understand how you lose your patience, but look at Jennifer's response (she didn't even appear to have a corporate email address) – in and of itself it's pretty sad but not any sort of indictment but taken with everything else, it seems to reinforce the notion of very little respect for their customers. Also, I'd add that if you can get burned by something as simple as someone printing up 3 copies of a ticket – you don't 'deserve' to be exploited but being that sloppy is going to attract a lot of scammers. I can imagine that they deal with some pretty obnoxious stuff (I'm sure many get really drunk, bring contraband or what not) but why not just deal with it directly instead of the indirect approach? A decent ticketing system and some wifi cameras could easily fix most of the drama (although I have no evidence one way or the other that churlishness is rampant on the bus)

  16. Jack says

    I'm afraid I have to embark briefly on the off-topic bandwagon.

    In my view, regardless of how one feels about the 2nd Amendment or how the NRA typically seeks to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners…

    Repeatedly robo-calling residents of Newtown, Connecticut, hoping to talk them into opposing gun-related legislation, just weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, was simply inexcusable.

    It was a far bigger dick move than Wil Wheaton, alone, could ever possibly accomplish. (Also, since when is being a talented actor necessarily equivalent to being an asshole?)

    Okay, back on track: I sincerely hope that many of Suburban Express's victims avail themselves of Illinois's anti-SLAPP measure. Give those bastards a taste of what will happen if they try to go back to their predatory practices once they think this has blown over.

  17. Ollie says

    As a college student myself, I think you give us too much credit as innocent victims in this situation. Knowing some of the people at my school, and some of the things they try to get away with, I can't blame Suburban Express for trying to avoid that crap. I know some of people that wouldn't think twice about reprinting tickets and other kinds of stupid stuff like that. And parent interference? I know some psychotic helicopter parents, and I would put something like that in the TOS too if I had a bus service for college kids. And I should add that I go to school in the middle of nowhere, where a good chunk of the kids come from places where dishonest behavior consists of shooting animals out of season. I can imagine that with kids from Chicago, SE must have it a lot worse. Maybe they haven't gone about it the best way, but I don't think that this is entirely outside the realm of being reasonable.

  18. says

    @Jack – Robocalls are pathetic mostly b/c they're annoying and impotent but the context here would matter a lot. If the robocalls were made to say, NRA members or people who were 2nd amendment supporters, I don't think it's tacky (I don't really have much thought on the NRA either way). Since Gun Control supporters were rather assertively trying to highlight victims' support, it seems to me it's just the nature of politics and an unfortunate reality of the political scene these days. If the NRA just carpet bombed everyone, than I'd agree that was in very poor taste and quite callous.

    I'm guessing among Popehat readers my view is going to be pretty common… there's nothing that could happen to me or my family that would make me want to give ground on any of the Bill of Rights. There's a lot that could make me want to roll back the infringement on those rights but not the other way around. I'd be seriously miserable and depressed if a friend|family or|loved one was killed in such a shootout and I damn sure wouldn't be interested in taking calls from anyone I didn't already know and care about. I'm pretty sure though that it cuts both ways as far as that goes – victims would be wanting to be left alone – most wouldn't want any political group using the tragedy to push an agenda. I personally would much rather take a call from a group fighting against any new laws than ones pushing for new ones (unless the new ones were taking back lost ground on freedom's)

  19. says

    @Olie – at the risk of belaboring the point I made earlier, it's 2013 after all. Why not just put systems in place that stop the crap from happening in the first place? It's easier, cheaper, leaves less room for confusion and also sends the message that you care about your own business interests? A very simple database, bar code fonts and readers would fix the ticketing issue. A statement that any drunken and boorish behavior would not be tolerated so avoid any confusion by not bringing booze or drugs on teh bus would cover that. If it's that out of control they could throw in- up front that profanity or whatever else isn't tolerated (but just put it out there up front so no one can cry foul later). I'm annoyed by helicopter parents as much as anyone, but you can even cut that out of the equation pretty easily. I'm not saying the company deserves to be taken advantage of unless they put things in place to stop it, but having a system with a lot of holes in it and resorting to legal threats instead of technological fixes seems to be bad business and bad policy – all the way around, no?

  20. Jim B says

    I've been friends with Dennis for 30 years. Dennis pointed me at one of the exploding threads, so I joined the conversation and attempted to offer a different perspective on why Dennis behaves the way he does. Nobody wanted to hear it, so I never got to state it.

    I understand the problems people have with Dennis' approach, but it is also obvious how people have twisted everything to fit their predetermined narrative about him and anything which doesn't reinforce the groupthink is quickly sucked underwater. On /r/uiuc, there is a reverse-Voldemort going on: some people are convinced if you use your real account name then Dennis' lawyer will magically appears to sue you. Concurring with what Seebs said, I'd guess Dennis would prefer that people just followed his rules and he didn't have to mess with the courts at all; it isn't a money making part of his business. Popehat can't cover all the angles of the story, but a lot of the back story remains ignored.

  21. Bob Brown says

    @Jim B: Well, the evidence (real evidence, as in court filings, not gripes posted on Reddit) seems to indicate that Toeppen will try to sue people for defamation if they say bad stuff about him. You say that he would "prefer that people just followed his rules," and maybe they would if the rules weren't so one-sided that another commenter here called them "predatory." I've read the "rules." There's no chance I'd agree to a contract like that.

    Then there's his not-pology. He'll dismiss the cases and wait for the flak to subside. Even his offer (or threat) to re-file in the student's county has the "mutual agreement" weasel wording attached.

    It is my carefully considered opinion that your friend Dennis is a douchebag. Yes, that's my real name. No, that is not a toupée.

    If Toeppen is really your friend, you can help him by advising him to follow Ken's advice: don't be a dick.

  22. JW says

    @Clark — > If only Wil himself followed that advice.

    Minus your prose, I came here to say much the same thing. I briefly followed Wheaton on Google+ (don't ask why) and came across his infamous philosophy one day. He just couldn't grok why people were being such dicks to him, when all he did was be a massive and rude dick himself in the first place, not that that level of self-awareness had managed to percolate to the surface and grace him with its presence.

    What a bitchy, whiny brat, undeserving of even the basest of Wesley snuff fanfic.

  23. Not A. Lawyer says

    So he's dropping the suits so that he can insist they pay ridiculous fees behind closed doors away from the the deservedly harsh eye the public has turned on his tactics. And if they don't pay up for somehow breaking his unreasonable terms of service, he'll still take them to court or collections. You didn't include information about the woman (probably one of many) who disputed the charge on her credit card because the bus didn't show up, AND THEN GOT CHARGED A HIGHER FEE FOR NONPAYMENT. I think we're way past quadruple douchebaggery… we're up to what, centuple???!!

  24. says

    I dunno what to make of this all. I'm not a big fan of the idea of suing college kids. On the other hand, I've been watching the headaches from crazy parents doing crazy things, and the various fraud attempts, for years. The lawsuits aren't part of the business model, and they aren't the first thing he tried. They're a (poorly-considered, I think) attempt to enforce basic terms like "don't print three copies of your ticket and have two friends try to get on two other buses that are going to the same place."

    I'll offer a bit of advice about how to stop this issue immediately: Either on paper or electronically, create a manifest for each bus. As each person boards, check their ID and compare it to the manifest. If you're not on the list, don't let them board.

    Problem solved.

  25. Lucy says

    Thank you for the link to Mr. Wheaton's T-Shirts. Too bad they aren't court friendly attire.

    The Wiki on Suburban Express has a "Lawsuits Against Passengers" as its own section heading. Back peddling out of that will be hard to do. According to that same Wiki, some of the suits are for cancelling payment for buses that did not show up. The sudden spike in this years 125 suits out of a total of 204 since 1994 is its own kind of dickery.

    An initial statement by SE explains that the driver of the shuttle that the unpleasant verbal exchange came from was/is not an employee of SE. Was the shuttle stolen? Is this splitting hairs (1099 v working for the company) to distance themselves from their own policy of prohibiting unpleasant verbal exchanges? In that same initial statement, SE claimed Leval was trying to "call as much attention to himself as possible." That in no way addresses the claims about their driver being rude to a passenger. Their standing policies are dickery. Can a policy be enforced if it is subjective like "using offensive or aggressive language"? If a defendant (student) doesn't have resources to defend themselves, almost anything on the word of whomever can be offensive. Example: Shuttle goes over a bump, passenger spills coffee on self/phone/book… "Shit!" happens. Someone is offended, profanity equals verbal violence/aggression to someone.

    Students have been referred to the Attorney General. Has there been any involvement from the Attorney Generals office?

    It may have seemed like an easy gambit to sue students, almost guaranteeing the defendant pool wont have resources to defend themselves reasonably. It seems they struck out filing a suit against a student who's father is an attorney. Also, they filed suit against students without cars in a court 111 miles away. This begs to question the demeanor of the clerks in the local courthouse. This also calls into question again, to be a dick, or not to be a dick.

    Engaging in settlement discussions and coming to mutual agreement still seems kind of dickerish especially over disputes like offensive language. SE should just apologize and walk away.

    Even if they slip out from under a catastrophic Streisand Effect, the internet is forever.

  26. Nigel Declan says

    I would also like to take this opportunity to use the comment space to complain about celebrities' opinions on aspects of the Constitution that are not the 1st Amendment and are irrelevant to the post at hand. It is well known that Wesley Snipes is not a proponent of the 16th Amendment. Post duly hijacked. Also, fuck the NRA.

  27. says

    @Mark Lyon: That is a wonderful idea, and would totally solve the problem in the case where it's a tiny little trip that only has one vehicle and no one's in a hurry so it doesn't matter whether loading the bus takes twice as long.

    It doesn't do you much good for, say, the case where a single scheduled "trip" is actually three, or five, or ten, buses, because you don't normally allocate specific people to specific buses in advance — and doing so would be a nightmare, as people will want to ride with a friend who bought tickets separately, and so on.

    Have you actually loaded a bus? Have you checked the IDs of fifty college students who are all anxious to go somewhere? Do you know how long it takes to do that?

    I guess what I'm getting at here is: If it were that trivially obvious, none of this would ever have come up. I know there's this instinct to think that everyone else is stupid. It happens with everything. Spend 10+ years working with doctors to treat insomnia, tell people about it, they will INVARIABLY ask you whether you drink caffeine late at night. Because they assume you haven't actually thought about this, at all, and that none of your doctors have ever considered anything basic or obvious.

    I recognize the desire to imagine that there's a trivial and easy solution, but usually, if someone's been in business for a decade or more and isn't doing the thing you think is obvious and easy, the chances are pretty good they know something you don't.

  28. says

    @Bill: There's actually some bar code stuff on the tickets now, which can be checked after the fact. The problem is coming up with a solid infrastructure to handle the case where there's multiple buses loading at the same time, so you can't have a single ticket scanner handling ALL the tickets, even if you have one per bus. And since sometimes the buses are subcontractors, you can't necessarily decide to have a particular computer setup installed on them or anything.

    Obviously, coming up with a working scanning system would be awesome. Coming up with a working scanning system that doesn't require a fixed installation, and can handle multiple simultaneous users who cannot necessarily assume that they have any sort of reliable networking available, turns out to be a little harder. There's a lot of assumptions we normally have about how ticketing works that are based on experience with, say, Greyhound, or airports. But those are fairly different cases.

    Suffice it to say: I am intimately aware that it would be great to have better scanning options at loading time, and also that it is a much harder problem than it looked like when I first looked at it.

  29. says

    @Seebs: Megabus seems to get by with the manifest system here in NYC. Granted, they don't always split one departure into multiple buses, but it has happened.

    People seem to understand the "get in the damn line for your bus" method used by their staff while people wait for the bus to come. Those people then go down the line and tell you what bus you're getting on, check you off, and make it easy for everyone to go in a nice line to drop bags and then board. They then call the driver who pulls up to the curb and everyone gets on.

    I've never noticed a problem with this system. It's reasonably efficient, though I do dislike standing around sometimes. The buses can't stay in one spot long because of various local rules.

  30. Bob Brown says

    @Seebs: So, you are telling us that Suburban Express operates intercity bus service without knowing who is on each bus? Holy smoke!

  31. says

    There's enough differences there that I don't think it would work well for this use case. Yeah, it might be possible to make it work, but it has significant potential to create problems. That someone else doing different kinds of service for a different population of customers in a different environment finds it suitable is not entirely persuasive…

  32. says

    Bob Brown: I don't even comprehend why this seems surprising, so I'm guessing that there's a miscommunication somewhere. If you are thinking by analogy to Greyhound bus service or airports, those are significantly difference, in that a single scheduled trip is pretty much always a single bus/plane. If you had service where you regularly needed three or five vehicles for a single trip (same starting point, same destination, same time, same day), you might not find it surprising to not know until everyone's boarded which vehicle they'll be on.

    I don't know enough about the details to usefully engage on most of this; just enough to observe that if you aren't actually running a bus company, and it looks really easy and you can't imagine why someone isn't doing a better job of it, remember that everyone feels the same way about whatever you do for a living. I regularly encounter people who can't understand why people think programming is hard, too. :)

  33. Scote says

    " Jim B • Apr 28, 2013 @5:25 pm

    I've been friends with Dennis for 30 years. Dennis pointed me at one of the exploding threads, so I joined the conversation and attempted to offer a different perspective on why Dennis behaves the way he does. Nobody wanted to hear it, so I never got to state it.

    I understand the problems people have with Dennis' approach, but it is also obvious how people have twisted everything to fit their predetermined narrative about him and anything which doesn't reinforce the groupthink is quickly sucked underwater"

    No need to twist anything. The facts of the case are twisted enough. Ken has reported actual facts of the onerous contract including self-help "fines" imposed on ticket holders for actions of **other people**, the extensive number of lawsuits in a venue hard for college students to get to, and the BS temporary voluntary dismissals.

    I wonder how many of these people defending Mr Toeppen actually are Mr Toeppen?

    And who would do business with a company that claims a right to "fine" you $500 for the actions of other people?

  34. JR says

    I sure do understand they need to do something if people are making copies of tickets. However some of you are violating a simple idea.

    Don't use technology to fix a procedural problem.

    My simple fix would be to charge their card for each ticket used. If someone makes extra copies of the ticket and give them to friends, then the person gets charged for all of the uses of that ticket.

    No extra cameras or barcode scanners. Just have the driver send in the tickets used and scan them. Five with the same barcode, charge for 5 rides. No need to sue anyone.

  35. Bob Brown says

    @Seebs: I can understand why Greyhound or other interstate carriers might be different, but you seem to admit that airport buses, which arrive every five minutes, can keep track of their passengers. It still doesn't seem hard to me.

    Speaking of which, programming is easy. The first of my three careers was that of programmer, and I still do recreational programming.

  36. says

    @seebs: "That is a wonderful idea, and would totally solve the problem in the case where it's a tiny little trip that only has one vehicle and no one's in a hurry so it doesn't matter whether loading the bus takes twice as long."

    As Mark pointed out Megabus miraculously manages to use a manifest system on buses carrying 50 or more people. You can show a printed copy of your ticket, or not print it at all and show it on your tablet or smartphone. The NYC departure point he mentioned down by the Hudson isn't the best spot, but in other cities they use existing bus terminals and stations and the system works just fine.

    You're inventing hurdles to the manifest system that don't exist in practice. There is no reason three buses loading 80 kids or whatever, all leaving at the same time, couldn't have a manifest and still load up and depart on time, short of the bus company not wanting to make a minimal investment to put the system in place.

  37. says

    Exactly, Bob. It seems the biggest problem is in how they schedule and book people, not in some magical unique situation caused by their special riders. If the people who operate and ride on Megabus can figure out a way to do this without significant hassle, I don't see why it's an unsolvable problem for this carrier.

    If yelling "take out your ids" and "get into this line if you're going to peoria" is too complicated, then maybe write a simple smartphone app that reads the barcodes and checks people off that way. Having multiple users on such a system is easy and cell service is usually reliable enough to make such a system work.

    (I, for instance, have a friend who built a system for the military that uses smartphones to collect storm damage information – they found commercial cell carriers reliable enough for that task. Why checking passengers into a bus with such a system in a reasonably large city would be impossible, I do not know.)

  38. says

    Incidentally, people who didn't want to have to worry about SE's after-the-fact fining policy (regardless of the legitimacy of the claim) could always just use a prepaid credit card to buy their ticket…

  39. Scote says

    seebs • Apr 28, 2013 @6:27 pm
    I recognize the desire to imagine that there's a trivial and easy solution, but usually, if someone's been in business for a decade or more and isn't doing the thing you think is obvious and easy, the chances are pretty good they know something you don't.

    What you seem to be saying is that Suburban Express has no idea if **anyone** on the bus has a valid ticket, and tries to make up lost funds buy suing people connected in some way with a valid ticket purchase and that people who just outright fake a ticket will me much better off than those who paid because A) They can't be dinged with fines through their credit card and B) They can't be said to have agreed to the ridiculous contract of adhesion mentioned by Ken.

    Either you are checking those tickets for validation or your are not. If you are checking them then the whining about we don't have time to to check them or it is logistically to hard because some buses are contracted ring hollow. If you aren't checking them, well that is just plain silly.

  40. Scote says

    Anton Sirius • Apr 28, 2013 @7:17 pm

    Incidentally, people who didn't want to have to worry about SE's after-the-fact fining policy (regardless of the legitimacy of the claim) could always just use a prepaid credit card to buy their ticket…

    Given that Suburban Express is known to be highly litigious with an itchy trigger finger in what appears to be a plaintiff friendly venue, they might sue a John Doe and seek to subpena email account records or IP records to get an ID.

  41. says

    @seebs -With the acknowledgement that I haven't used this service and don't want to talk out of my a55, I would definitely have to make some assumptions. At the same time, I can say with certainty that it's very doable and I'm positive that unless there's some really intricate nuance that just affects this company – it could be done quickly and effectively – even with Subs. Airplanes, school buses , tour buses, shuttles all have the same issues unless I'm majorly missing something. You have to load people on the bus and there's X entry points to those busses. You can scan people beforehand and if they're proximate to each other, you could do it with a very basic wifi router. If they're dispersed, an air-card can do it. Cabbies/Livery the world around do it all real-time and if it's cost effective at that level, it would be just as economical at the bus level (which would actually benefit from scale). So just to be clear though – (and hopefully others in the thread don't find this digression rude – it seems at least a few others have chimed in but if it's annoying and anyone doesn't want to listen to tech geekery – I certainly understand) – what's unique about this situation that makes it so different? Like I said – I haven't used this service so I'm not asking in an argumentative fashion, I'm asking purely out of technical curiosity – at the same time I'm thinking – if the company really is a stand up outfit and they have just 'went there' b/c they thought they had no other options – the owner might be interested in finding out how to fix it with technology. I'm thinking you could scan everyone outside of the bus so you could get around the multiple boarding points by just scanning them while they're waiting when they first get there. Wifi/air card would let you access a web service or hit the database directly. Or you could just assign each person to a specific bus which seems the easiest way to go about it. I buy Ticket (insert Guid here) and select the location I want to board it – the system generates a bar code and assigns me to a specific bus (the system would know how many seats are available and how many have been seated so it would actually streamline things). If for some reason I need to go to a different bus, it just has to be done at some pre-defined point or website. Guid + bus + customer gets a hash, the hash is compared at scan time. If you somehow couldn't get access across busses, then you'd just have to deal with people boarding on a bus other than their assigned one . If you just did it right before while people were arriving – you wouldn't even need internet access – you could just corral the people that were attempting to load on an unassigned bus. Just seems like if it's big enough to be a problem, if it's big enough to warrant contractual language and possible litigation, getting a system in place protects everyone.

  42. Alan Bleiweiss says

    No disrespect intended to everyone suggesting a workable technical solution to the purported problem that initiated the onerous TOS, since they're a serious consideration IF Suburban Express is sincere in their desire to improve things, or IF they're sincere in claiming the TOS was designed to thwart bad people who just want a free ride.

    That however, is a pretty big supposition in light of the facts as Ken laid them out.

    Personally, I'm much more skeptical and believe the TOS were just designed to rip off students who can't afford to defend themselves. In which case the TOS was set up mostly as a money-grabbing scam.

    Again that's just my opinion, and Submit Express would be ill advised to want to sue me for my opinion.

  43. Jim B says

    Scote — I glad you can determine which facts are true facts and which facts are unnecessary to understand a situation. Your doubt that anyone but Dennis could defend Dennis is evidence that confirmation bias is your hobby. You should try to get comfortable with the idea that something which appears simple to you often has other facets, and that complex personalities can have both admirable and regrettable traits.

    Bob Brown — That you do recreational programming means you aren't subject to the constraints that most working programmers face. To say without condition that programming is easy indicates you are either a genius or uninformed. Congratulations if it is the former.

    Speaking of Greyhound, before Dennis started his bus company as a sophomore college student, Greyhound had a lock on the local market, and charged accordingly. Suburban Express dramatically lowered the cost of transportation to students and offered a wider range of more conveniently situated stops, so much so that Greyhound had to leave the market as they only way they could compete was through predatory pricing. I witnessed that battle from the sidelines as it played out in 83-85. The personality traits which people detest in Dennis are the exact same traits that made him persevere against a deep-pocketed national brand, investing 60+ hours a week in a low/no profit bus company while maintaining a normal academic workload. The students have benefited from that competition to this day. This isn't to excuse everything he has done, but it also seems unfair to not recognize how he reshaped the local market to the advantage of the students as well.

  44. Doctor Railgun says

    I think you're missing the point here. Your friend is suing college students (and a reddit moderator) because they said bad things about him and his company. Fraudsters aside, difficulty of matching tickets aside… expressing one's opinion or posting bad reviews is not a reason for a lawsuit. If there's one thing that people that read Popehat should take away, it is that. Please help your friend learn this lesson.

  45. Obiwan says

    If you had service where you regularly needed three or five vehicles for a single trip (same starting point, same destination, same time, same day), you might not find it surprising to not know until everyone's boarded which vehicle they'll be on.

    First of all, "Seebs" is really no one other than Dennis Toeppen. It's easy to tell from his distinctive writing style that pretty much always uses CAPS for EMPHASIS. Second of all, when do you regularly use three to five buses? As someone who has used this shitty bus service in the past, and who has also been on campus for a number of years now, I have only ever seen you using more than one bus once. So no, three to five is not the standard, it is the exception, for days that fall right after finals week and such.

    You have falsified facts by saying you regularly use three to five buses. Expect contact from the legal profession this week. You may or may not have learned a useful life lesson yet but you surely will if you don't change your ways.

  46. Bob Brown says

    Oh, JimB, you aren't following Ken's advice. I made my living as a programmer for the first third of my adult life. It was just as easy then as it is now. Am I a genius? Not a chance? Am I a pretty good linear thinker? Yup.

    Did I notice that you have attempted to turn the conversation from the douchebag-ness of your friend Dennis? You bet your sweet ass I did!

  47. Lucy says

    I've heard the phrase “It's not against the law to be an asshole." so many times by attorneys… I still don't believe it. The actions themselves have to be looked at rather than just how somebody feels about it. In this case, the asshole is suing a particular crowd/class of people suddenly, for legally questionable reasons in a questionable way.

  48. Jim B says

    Bob Brown — you are implying that I was trying to pull something tricky; I'm not. If you are interested in only hearing one side of the story, there are a bunch of reddit threads I can point you at. I was attempting to offer some contrary information that fills out an otherwise shallow narrative.

    "Oh, JimB, you aren't following Ken's advice." [of not being a dick] I'm glad you find programming to be easy, but that puts you in a small minority. Pointing out that most programmers have a different opinion on the matter hardly makes me a dick. Thanks for keeping the level of discourse high.

  49. Bob Brown says

    JimB, I'm not implying anything. I'm asserting that you tried to divert the discussion from the douchebag-ness of your friend by saying things like, "you are either a genius or uninformed." Thanks for keeping the level of discourse high.

  50. Hulinut says

    My Dad (RIP) fixed the whole re-printing fraud stuff for a bus company that sold tickets in the same way in Dublin back round the turn of the century. He did it in pretty much the way Mark Lyon suggested using a system hooked up to the radios the buses already had for keeping in contact with the depot.

  51. IlliniStudent says

    I will keep this simple.

    I am a student at the University of Illinois who witnessed everything that recently has been occurring. Additionally, I have witnessed many things in the past.

    This being my 6th year here, I have witnessed Dennis humiliate many of my friends. Prior to his online ticketing system, he had machines where you could purchase tickets in the Suburban Express office.

    I can recall an incident where one of my friends asked Dennis if the machines took change. To my amazement, that simple question sparked rage from Dennis and my friend received a barrage of offensive comments as well as a banning.

    Another incident involving the office ticketing occurred when one of them malfunctioned. When the machine printed out the wrong ticket, and my friend tried to exchange it at the counter, he was yelled at by Dennis and also banned.

    Jumping ahead to my graduate years at this University, I have witnessed Dennis send threatening offensive emails to people as a means to intimidate them into submission. When one girl posted about Dennis trying to collect money from her (which he successfully did), Dennis quickly emailed her saying in short that she better remove her comment or she will be sued.

    Furthermore, I witnessed all of the Reddit discussions with Dennis' purported fake accounts. When a student posted his negative experience with Suburban Express, a fake account was made containing the last name of the student who spoke out and that fake account made a comment similar too "poor little (last name)" as a subliminal intimidation tactic.
    Lastly, another fake Reddit account, purportedly one of Dennis’, released the ADDRESS of someone who was speaking out about Suburban Express.

    These are not the actions of a sane individual looking to make the campus a better place for students. **In my opinion** these are the actions of a conniving, mentally unstable, manipulative, and psychotic individual who needs serious serious therapy.

    No amount of BS from this guy will make me believe he will change. From his "action plan" that was emailed to Ken, all I see is this man sending out more threatening letters to collect money, then re-filing more lawsuits once these students don’t pay and the heat is turned down.

    I just hope Ken is ready for action and a follow-up story once Suburban Express repeats its bad behavior.

  52. Scote says

    Jim B • Apr 28, 2013 @7:49 pm

    Scote — I glad you can determine which facts are true facts and which facts are unnecessary to understand a situation. Your doubt that anyone but Dennis could defend Dennis is evidence that confirmation bias is your hobby. You should try to get comfortable with the idea that something which appears simple to you often has other facets, and that complex personalities can have both admirable and regrettable traits."

    Notices what is missing from your post, "Jim"? Any rebuttal of any of the facts mentioned. Nice try at a Chewbaca defense, though.

    First rule of holes: stop digging. I don't know of you are Mr Toeppen or not. What I do know is that you are just as bad at digging out of holes as he is.

    I witnessed that battle from the sidelines as it played out in 83-85. The personality traits which people detest in Dennis are the exact same traits that made him persevere against a deep-pocketed national brand, investing 60+ hours a week in a low/no profit bus company while maintaining a normal academic workload. The students have benefited from that competition to this day. This isn't to excuse everything he has done, but it also seems unfair to not recognize how he reshaped the local market to the advantage of the students as well.

    Ah, seems you are saying [he's] turned from aggressively fighting Greyhound for profit to aggressively fighting his own customers.

  53. says

    If Mr. Toeppens was smart enough to start a bus line that outcompeted Greyhound, why isn't he smart enough to find a business model that doesn't require suing the shit out of his costumers?

  54. AlphaCentauri says

    One of the other websites covering this mentions that University of Illinois will provide legal representation for their students, but only in Champaign County. So it's pretty easy to see why a venue where none of the parties is located would be attractive.

    If students engaging in theft of services is such a recurrent issue, SE should be seeking cooperation from the university, which can discipline students for that type of off-campus minor crime, rather than trying to dodge their involvement by suing in a distant county.

  55. Scote says

    I'm curious about the venue. Does Suburban Express have any tie to the venue at all? Or are they allowed to just forum shop wherever they want based on the "contract"?

  56. says

    @JimB – if you'd indulge me if you'd be so kind?

    …so much so that Greyhound had to leave the market as they only way they could compete was through predatory pricing

    I'm not disputing it as I don't know anything about the details, but how would this work? Predatory pricing (which my grad school professors assured me was usually just a myth perpetuated by sore losers) is dropping prices in a race to the bottom predicated on the belief the competitors will collapse under the pressure before you do, right? How can that ever be a strategy where it's the only way you have to compete? Unless the other company knew (and could afford) exactly what their competitors costs were, profit was etc, unless they could know with precision what their competitors revenues will be, unless they can know what loans or equity injections the other company could get, how could you even remotely do this with any degree of belief you'd succeed? How could anyone know a company was engaging in predatory pricing (barring explicit admissions or hard proof) vs. loss minimization? It seems that even if you successfully pulled it off, the demand curves have to be pretty elastic in this market, driven more by what college kids can afford than anything else so how would it succeed even if the plan worked? I may just be showing my ignorance, but the scenario just sounds like the plot of a Robert Redford movie so I'm asking ;-)

  57. William Sutton says

    OK, reading the letters to Ken, and going on an "assume the best intentions of someone in a particular situation" basis, I can believe that Mr. Toeppen is honestly at his wits' end dealing with what he sees as problems that could wreck the company. I can also believe that he has developed an us-vs-them attitude, and sees "them" as "out to get" "us". Not good. But looking for procedural or technical solutions to problems before going litigious seems like a better idea.

    That said, I noticed that Mr. Toeppen's emails are riddled with spelling errors, which even the most basic of spell checks would have caught. If he is as careful about his business as he is with his spelling, it's no wonder he has problems.

  58. Jim B says

    Bob Brown — many of these comments have tangents, including your own about the ease of programming. I made the mistake of commenting on the tangent which you introduced, and so now I'm the one who is diverting the thread. Let me scroll back and see how much you protested about the discussion of what Wil Wheaton has or hasn't said has sidetracked things.

    Scote — why the scare quotes? Jim is my name. "Scote" most likely isn't your name, so please don't get uppity. Why do you think it is my job to rebut the claims? I am not close enough to confirm or rebut most of them anyway. I have offered up some counter information which I think deepens the context of the discussion. Your reaction has been to discount everything which doesn't fit your view. "Chewbacca defense": I had to look that up. It doesn't seem at all germane as I'm not defending him against any of these charges. He has done dickish things but that doesn't mean that by point out there is more to the story than his dickish behavior means I'm attempting to excuse his dickish behavior.

    "Ah, seems you are saying [he's] turned from aggressively fighting Greyhound for profit to aggressively fighting his own customers." You could say that, if you want to reduce things to a cartoon view of the situation, and considering you reference a South Park episode as a legal touch point, I guess you probably do. Ask yourself this: if Suburban Express was so uniformly bad, why have they been the largest carrier in that market for 30 years? Rather than reducing it to "[he's] aggressively fighting his own customers", how about the more nuanced, "In order to run his buses on time and at a reasonable price, he is willing to enforce baroque rules against the 5% so that the 95% have a better experience." The simple fact is the people who show up on reddit to join the chorus are most likely to be the 5%, not the 95%, giving an extremely non-uniform sampling of the customer space.

  59. says

    @Bob Brown – what the heck did you program? I'm sitting here babbling on my favorite blog to take a break for my 3rd in a row all-nighter trying to get my backprop and Hopfield algorithms running right (currently, they 'work' but are proceeding along at a pace rivaled only by mammal evolution). As soon as I get this crap ironed out, I've got to try to feed the inputs into a linear regression and make something other than a big mess, out of it. I'm so far in the bubble right now, I had to look up what Easy meant on Websters ;-)

  60. Matthew Cline says

    You agree to pay any and all collection costs, including attorney’s fees, should collection or other legal action become necessary,

    Hmmm, wouldn't that mean that if they sued a former customer for libel, and the defendant won an anti-SLAPP counter suit, the former customer would still have to pay all the legal fees for the bus company, even though the bus company lost?

  61. Delvan says

    The TOS are ridiculous. I'm sure there are crappy customers, crappy drivers, and people trying to cheat the system, that may justify why Toeppen may have set such the TOS to be as ridiculous as they are.

    None of this affects his repeated filing of lawsuits aimed at protected speech. Even if all the defendants are douchebags (and its clear from the cases that many are not e.g. cancelled payment when the bus never showed up), there's only one party here repeatedly violating the Bill of Rights and twisting the legal system to accomplish that. Paint his character as positive as you might like, demonize those rambunctious kids all you want; whether or not you think he is a "good person" does not determine whether or not he may violate my rights.

  62. says

    @JimB – Just curious if you happened to look at the Customer Service Exchange linked to by Oomph. I'm generally a 'give people a benefit of the doubt' type of guy, but her response was just so f*cked up (as Jennifer herself would say) , especially done in a public internet forum done as a representative of the company. Unless she was just trying to get fired and take her boss down on the way out – it's hard to imagine anyone in Customer Service rolling like that unless she thought he boss would support her (b/c there's no way you can respond like that and think your boss would be indifferent). The dude seems to have a pretty valid complaint there and even if she thought the BBB comment was out of line, three responses in a row, firing off insults right out of the gate. Even if there was nothing else, that response alone would make a pretty compelling case that they have contempt for their customers or view abusing them as acceptable – unless she wasn't really a SE employee, or just trying to destroy the company on her way out. Then again, I realize it's possible that the items posted aren't the entirety of the conversation or that there's more to the story – if that post is real though, it's pretty bad, don't you think?

  63. Michael S. says

    @Jim B:

    You make a remark above about Greyhound leaving the market (presuming you mean Champaign-Urbana) around 83-85, rather than engage in predatory pricing. I was born in the years after that, and since Illinois Terminal opened in the early-'00s, I can remember seeing Greyhound buses pretty regularly. Have even used them out of there and back again. Is there maybe something I'm missing on that?

    @Matthew Cline:

    Not a lawyer…but…if they lose in the face of Anti-SLAPP, the suit they brought in the first place probably could not be found to be 'necessary' by any stretch of the imagination. On the face of it, just by the plain meaning of the words, I don't think the defendant could be on the hook based on that.

  64. Jim B says

    WGRyan — sorry, I missed your query the first time. I have to reiterate that this is my understanding from watching from the sidelines.

    When Suburban Express entered the market at a lower price in 83, Greyhound followed by dropping their price. Over many months the two companies engaged in a pricing war. Dennis knew his cost structure and was at the break even point, and had very strong reasons to believe that Greyhound was pricing below cost, so he filed suit with some transportation authority I think. Greyhound's response was to leave the market, presumably because they had been pricing below their costs to drive out the new competition. Suburban Express then raised their prices somewhat in order to make it worthwhile, but still far below the original Greyhound price. Capping prices was not, of course, charity, but a calculated business decision to maximize profits while keeping margins low enough to disinterest new competitors.

  65. Jim B says

    Michael S — yes, of course I meant the local market. I graduated in 85 so I don't know what happened with Greyhound after that. I'm guessing that Greyhound carries a small slice of the UIUC population as compared to Suburban Express, Lincolnland Express (RIP), and Peoria Charter.

  66. says

    @JimB – thanks – that actually makes sense. My personal opinion doesn't matter much to anything but I generally have trouble getting believing a company would engage in predatory pricing b/c it's too risky and very possibly a pyrrhic victory even if successful, but losing a pricing war or giving up b/c it's no longer worth is plausible. You make some pretty interesting points and I can conceive things are not as bad as they look but i'm still having a little bit of trouble with the whole approach just being protective necessity, specifically with Jennifer's response – any thoughts or insight on that? It just really seems like in order for someone to write something like that – they'd have to feel that the boss would be ok with it. I think it was @Seebs that said he suffer scammers lightly so perhaps the poster had more to say then they let on. If it is indeed what it looks like though – that's a pretty damning discussion.

  67. says

    @Obiwan – Wow. Ok, that's just too much to even entertain at this point – he's just a very manipulative dickhead trying to undo his self-caused implosion. I wonder if Jennifer even really exists (can't seem to find any other trace of her or that address). So now he's trying to be Mr Stand up guy not letting poor little Jen take the heat – what a guy. If pretending to be someone else so you can really stick it to someone who said something you don't like is scrupulously honest I'd hate to see what scumbags do.

  68. says

    Incidentally, one of those other bus lines is now sending out emails saying, "It has been brought to our attention, a competitor in Champaign has filed 96 lawsuits against UI students in the past 3 months. These are due to improper use of a ticketing system. We are happy to inform you we have 0 lawsuits pending and would like your help in spreading the word about the friendly, professional service at PCC. Save $2 per ticket until the end of April by using promo code: "nolawsuits."

    I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that when your competition is using "We Won't Sue You" in their promotional materials, you might be doing something wrong.

  69. Collin says

    "An angry and defiant to a customer complaint" – missing the word "response" after "defiant" I believe? :)

  70. William Sutton says

    @Dan J: Wow. Just WOW. I have to rethink my "give the benefit of the doubt" approach for this guy. Anyone who blatantly cybersquats domains AND sues his customers AND ran at break-even for a few years to price another company out of the market believes in just one thing: profit for himself regardless of who else gets hurt along the way. Very bad customer service.

  71. Votre says

    Maybe certain people would do well avail themselves of competent professional psychological counseling if they're having issues with self esteem or anger? Initiating legal action is a very expensive form of therapy.

    And with all due respect, Mr Toeppen's response sounds very much like that of a parent of any 5th grade bully who has been caught out. An attempt at sounding reasonable while at the same time not directly answering much at all to the questions being asked.

    To borrow from a TV show I overhead last week: "Man up and take it on the chin, mate! There's no way you're talking your way around this one." :-))

  72. mcinsand says

    We really need some sort of TOS reform. To many companies have become very aggressive in claiming that, by clicking the purchase button, the purchaser gives up many of the rights, freedoms, and protections afforded by a decent legal system. This sort of over-reaching is a form of legal intimidation, and companies need to face punishment for doing so.

  73. says

    I've never met Dennis Toeppen, but I've known Seebs online for a good twenty years and met him in person a number of times. (He has also written a pretty good book on shell scripting.) Seebs isn't a sock puppet. It takes about ten seconds to google "seebs" and find his website and blog. The only thing Seebs is guilty of here is trying to share what he thinks is the guy's point of view. Feels harmless to me.

    Not that anybody knows who I am, either, but shrug. Long time reader who rarely comments.

  74. Ec the Illinois Student says

    I've ridden Suburban Express once before – and I'll never do so again. Their website was so poorly designed that, when my mother let me use her credit card, it printed a ticket not in my name but in hers. I tried calling customer service repeatedly over the next couple weeks (this was before I learned how bad they were), but no one ever answered. Still, I can answer a few questions about their boarding process:
    @Bill – They do print barcodes on the tickets, and they do scan them as people are boarding the buses.
    @Mark: They do have a paper manifest for the bus and check each person's name off as they board.
    @Lucy: If they're saying the driver wasn't a Suburban employee, I'm guessing he was a contractor's employee; Suburban Express runs a lot of its buses (if not all) through contractors.

  75. jackn says

    Personally, I'm much more skeptical and believe the TOS were just designed to rip off students who can't afford to defend themselves. In which case the TOS was set up mostly as a money-grabbing scam.

    in my opinion, this is fact.

  76. Scote says

    "Ec the Illinois Student • Apr 29, 2013 @7:46 am

    @Bill – They do print barcodes on the tickets, and they do scan them as people are boarding the buses."

    It sounds like they just decided it would be more profitable to "fine" an sue people than to buy a system that checks the validity of the bar codes in real time against an on-line data base to insure the code hasn't been used before.

  77. says

    @seebs, the problem you are looking at was solved at least 10 years ago, and is in use all over the country. The only problems are 1) getting the company to invest in its infrastructure (scanners, database, Wifi) and 2) convincing the programmer(s) to use existing structures. Buss companies, music venues, ski resorts, spas all use some form of singel use passes.
    And I agree with Bob, programming isn't that hard. Getting the requirements right could kill you, however.

  78. yelyos says

    @Obiwan Just thought I'd make a point of clarification – seebs is not Mr. Toeppen. I used to have discussions at length with seebs in an atheist IRC channel that I hung out in in 2003, and his website goes back at least that far under his own name, posting at length about religion and members of the nascent online atheist community at the time among other topics.

    (I am also not Mr. Toeppen – I'm a Canadian 23 year old fairly inactive Wikipedia administrator who reads Popehat (and some other legal blogs, like Volokh) out of a sense of glee at lawyers behaving badly receiving just comeuppance, and was surprised to see seebs' username in the comments as I haven't seen him since the IRC channel we shared changed servers and died years ago.

  79. Dan Weber says

    I'm going to stick up for Seebs, if only that "a guy I know and have a nice opinion of has just been targeted (even legitimately) by the Internet" is not a valid reason for him to get dumped on.

    first, spend a very little bit of money to write barcodes on your passes and scan them

    This sounds obvious for someone setting up a bus company today. He's been doing this since at least the 80's, though. A pure paper system is probably what they started with and are comfortable. Yeah, he should keep up with the times.

    None of this is meant to defend SEx's lawsuit threats.

  80. Turb0Grl says

    So, to give some more perspective, from someone who lives in Chambana, but is not a student, but has had, on occasion, to use the charter bus service. Right now, there are only a few public transportation options to get to the Chicagoland area. & by Chicagoland, I mean the airport or the suburbs. Amtrak and Greyhound go to DT Chicago (Greyhound as a few stops on the southside, but that's it). To get to either airport or the suburbs, you need to take these charter buses. Lincolnland Express (LEX) just got shut down by the Feds, so that leaves Illini Shuttle/Suburban Express and Peoria Charter. In prior years, Peoria Charter didn't operate in the summer and their slim offerings all went through Bloomington/Normal. (for an example, last summer, my trip from Urbana to O'Hare was about 5+ hours because we went to Blono 1st, then several stops through the western suburbs before we even approached O'Hare. However, since the bus ticket was $30 and airfare from Willard to O'Hare can add upwards of $200 to the price, guess which one gets picked the most). Starting last year and now with LEX's demise, Peoria Charter is expanding their service. But that still leaves only the two choices for this type of service. I guess my point is,these companies are dealing with a captive audience who, for the most part, have few resources to use to fight these corporations who are taking advantage of the situation. The students here get screwed by everyone. From the grocery store on campus (prices are higher than the same store away from campus), to the gas stations who jack up the prices on Mom's weekend, to the landlords and their pricing schemes and leases. I'm glad that the Popehat/Ars Technica/BoingBoing light shone down on this little bit. The fact that the owner has said he'll stop suing in Ford County and then seriously altered the TOS means something good is coming out of this, and not just on the free-speech side. I really hope when the light dims and goes away, things don't go back to "screwing the students" as norm.

  81. Jeff says

    I'm not an expert on Fitzgerald, but he wrote about second "acts," not second "chances." I am pretty sure he wasn't referring to people's ability to rehabilitate or redeem themselves; America loves second changes. I think he was referring to the second act of a play, where the characters we met in the first act usually have a pretty good go of it for awhile. I think his point was that so many Americans climb, climb, climb the bill, but aren't able to enjoy the view before tumbling down.

    But then again this view is mostly based on a half-reading of a few Fitzgerald books maybe 15 years ago. I'm not even sure I've actually read all of The Last Tycoon, the (unfinished) novel that the quote comes from.


  82. Jeff says

    Goddamn, that's a lot of typos for one short comment. America loves second "chances"; people climb, climb, climb the "hill"; and so on.

  83. says

    @BobBrown – appreciate it but I'm wayyy further down the path – I'm with you that it's way ot – I was just caught up in a super work binge and a little punchy (the word easy isn't what comes to mind but you weren't saying 'all programming is easy')

    @Al Iverson – I'll chime in here as well in that Seebs is a real guy – I've seen him around too.

    @Oomph – Well, Whether she's real or not it's still very suspicious – particularly with how sorry he was when it wasn't a named person and a few other things. She very well might be real, it might be a diffeent Jennifer or a few other things, but there's no way you accidentally send 3 emails from someone ele's account. In any case, point taken

  84. says

    This should really be called the “Mark Zuckerberg Effect”.

    In order to do business with me, you agree to my unreasonable terms and conditions which state I own the rights to pretty much all of your shit, including your behavior, and if there is any resultant litigation involved the deck is stacked in my favor. Obey or be excluded.

    I like the Suburban Express “Children” policy;

    “Children under 60" tall are not permitted. Children under 14 years of age must be accompanied by an adult. Each child must possess a valid full-fare ticket. Lap-sitting is not permitted under any circumstance.”

    Hold and comfort a crying child and you might get a summons?

    Suburban Express appears to be engaging in a pattern and practice of abusing contract law for big guy against the little guy extortion. They suck!

    It all makes for a nice little profit center beyond the scope of the original business model and instills fear to boot.

    7-Eleven should get on to this and post some small print ‘Terms and Conditions’ at the front door of every one of their stores. You could fine people for standing in front of the beer coolers too long.

    The disease of Xtrevilism is reaching epidemic proportions.

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

  85. Matthew Cline says

    @Mark: They do have a paper manifest for the bus and check each person's name off as they board.

    Then why do they need a $100 fine if someone duplicates a ticket? It seems like the paper manifest alone would prevent any duplicate ticket scam from working.

  86. George William Herbert says

    I also have known Seebs on the net (and rarely in person) going back 20… er, 20-plus years on the Internet.

    Obiwan, you owe him an apology.

  87. Ec the Illinois Student says

    @Matthew Cline – Very good question! Maybe some drivers don't check well enough? Maybe some scammers paste over other names?

    Like Turb0Grl said, this's almost a captive market. The only other direct option to the airports now that the ICC shut down Lex is Peoria Charter, which (at least the last time I checked) doesn't run anywhere near as often. Myself, I've often taken Amtrak into downtown Chicago and then transferred to the El – but, then, Amtrak only runs three times a day.

  88. Ec the Illinois Student says

    (Edit: There're also a few premium super-high-cost services that don't advertise very much around campus.)

  89. AlphaCentauri says

    It would depend what the tickets look like. You're talking engineering students here. They would just as likely try it for the challenge as much as to save money.

    You can download the bar code fonts and use them like any other font. You just put an asterisk before and after a number and change it to "3 of 9" just like you'd change it to "Arial Bold." The students could theoretically create their own tickets de novo if the bar code on the ticket wasn't being matched to the name on the ID and to the destination.

    But if UPS can do it for boxes, surely SE can do it for people.

  90. Ron says

    The post title should be…

    "Suburban Express Took The Express Bus To The Streisand Effect. Have They Disembarked In Time?"

    I changed "first" to "express".

  91. Mark C. says

    Seriously. Jim B's condescending posts notwithstanding, just do a web search for Mr Toeppen and you'll see that there are a number of anecdotes regarding his apparently erratic behaviour.

    People were calling for blacklisting SEX on Yelp back in 2010.

    And then there's this (!!), that Mr T (or an account claiming to be him) admitted to writing himself.

  92. Mark C. says

    Notice that on Mr T's reddit post he admitted frustation in the fact that they had to cancel the bus service, but not to calling the customer an "ashole" (sic).

    In that case, the rashly written sequence of emails leads credence to the theory that he is an individual that is certainly overreactive and I wonder (in my own fucking opinion) if he is indeed fit to run a successful business in what appears to be a highly stressful and competitive market.

  93. urbantravels says

    In my completely unqualified armchair-psychologist OPINION, it seems like the purported problem (students being irresponsible or dishonest) is *deliberately* being addressed in the most adversarial possible way. As has been mentioned here, "designing around" the problem by improving the company's ticketing systems would be fairly trivial, and would address the problem of innocent students getting screwed by malfunctioning systems as well as the problem of dishonest students trying to pull something.

    But preferring the "sue 'em all" solution has so many obvious downsides that one can't help but think it's motivated by a psychological *need* to villainize as many students as possible.

  94. Steven in Michigan says

    These are just unruly students who don'r respect authority. The spoiled little brats needs their azzes kicked and sit down on a bus and don't counterfeit tickets. I still don't understand the lawsuit but when I had an U of I student attorney it was for a real case, not punk kids acting out on a bus and counterfeiting tickets. You read the agreement and you should abide by the rules. That's what wrong with kids today, they try to tell others how to run their business. St down and shut the hell up. Little varmint with no respect for a dog. I would have dropped them off on the side of the road and then tell them to thumb their way to where they are going. Little b@stards!

  95. Delvan says

    Hmm, my bid for C/S/T on that one is 25%/55%/20%.

    How does one turn C/S/T into a wagered bet? Dare I say it, we need someone with knowledge of the intricacies of betting on ponies. I'll give 3:2 odds on my S-C quinella, any takers?

  96. andrews says

    Not that the students would know, either, but you have to wonder if Illinois has anything comparable to Florida's 57.105(7), which says that if the contract says that one side gets fees, then the other side gets fees.

    Knowing that might go a long way to equalizing the situation when the bus company sues in an inconvenient forum.

  97. says

    @Steve In Michigan – Even if some of them are spoiled brats, even if some counterfeit tickets blah blah blah – so what? This business has been around for a while and has no problem taking money from these spoiled little brats and in business you take the good with the bad – if that's the market you take advantage of – then how can one bitch about the very customers that pays the bills. Did you see the Chinese Student union exchange? That kid did nothing wrong and for that, he got screwed over royally and abused by a guy who pretended to be some employee of his.

  98. Stephen says

    I humbly suggest that while this company appears to be "fixing" their terms of service, as soon as the Internet turns its back the document will be back to its "screw the customer" original form. This guy clearly wants to get your money coming AND going.

    Screwing students is just base.

  99. IlliniStudent says

    He has now tried to belittle me, Jeremy Leval, here:

    However, he leaves out MANY facts:

    1) The apology was NOT from Suburban Express, it was from the subcontractor AFTER Suburban Express banned me.

    2) The article states all witnessed Jeremy Leval's "behavior"….yes they did, they all stated I was polite and stood up for the student being humiliated (which is a behavior). Suburban Express fails to address what my "behavior" was…however you can see what a witness, Hanyu Gu, said about it here.:

    3) Yes, I do use the name "sweethackinjustice" which the site calls strange because Suburban Express' site was "hacked"….if this were true, why hasn't Suburban Express filed a lawsuit against me OR why isn't there even a police report?!?!

    Suburban Express' "President", Dennis Toeppen, is nothing more than a bully who twists words and tries to defame those who expose him.