Suburban Express bus-line sends bullying, cowardly legal threat to Reddit, discovers Streisand Effect

A convicted cybersquatter named Dennis Toeppen now runs the Suburban Express bus service that is used to take students home from university in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa to Chicago. Suburban Express attracts many online complaints from riders who object to the company's policy of fining riders $100 (charged automatically to their ticket-purchase credit-card) if they present the wrong ticket when they board, and other, similar policies -- and who allege that the company hunts down its online critics and bans them from riding.

But Toeppen and Suburban Express went too far when it threatened a volunteer Reddit moderator with a defamation suit for failing to police the company's critics on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign subreddit, where a banner read, "Don't ride Suburban Express! They're likely to sue you, have terrible reviews, and also this." The banner implied that an anonymous Reddit commenter who accused Suburban Express critics of of being "lonely virgins" was run by Toeppen or his representatives.

The ensuing negative publicity (and a stern note from Ken "Popehat" White) frightened the bullying, cowardly company into withdrawing its threat. But with any luck, the company's public conduct will warn its potential customers away and make the offers presented by its rivals more attractive. If I was running a competing bus service, I'd be buying ad space on the subreddit in question, running ads that say, "Ride with us, we don't fine you, we don't ban you for complaining, and we won't threaten to sue you if you aren't happy!"

The company has developed a bad reputation online, with reviewers on Yelp and commenters on reddit sharing stories of what they claim are the company’s cutthroat business practices. For example, the company's ticket policy includes a "ticket fraud" clause that hits riders who hand the wrong ticket to a driver with a $100 fine, charged to the credit card used to purchase their ticket. "In the event that ticket is used to obtain transportation on another day or at another time," the company's policy statement reads, "or to or from a Chicago area stop other than printed on your ticket, you will be charged full fare for the trip you actually rode PLUS $100 penalty. You will also be permanently banned." The company also has a history of suing passengers for violating its terms and conditions—it has filed 125 tort and contract damage lawsuits against passengers this year alone, according to a report from a student newspaper.

The terms of service don't include not speaking ill of the company online, but apparently they might as well. Some commenters have accused the company's owner, Dennis Toeppen, of hunting down negative reviewers and banning them from the company's buses.

The Internet cauldron of opinion boiled over for Suburban Express after an incident on March 31. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate student Jeremy Leval took to Facebook, describing a driver he saw make derogatory comments to an international student who was having difficulty understanding him—“If you don’t understand English, you don’t belong at the University of Illinois or any ‘American’ University," he reportedly told her.

Update: Aaand here it is: a rival company, Peoria Charter, is advertising to Suburban Express customers with a campaign that stresses that they don't sue their customers. They're offering $2 off if you book tickets on their coaches with the promo code "nolawsuits" -- thanks, Murph!

Express to Internet Hate: Bus company threatens redditor with lawsuit [Sean Gallagher/Ars Technica]


  1. I am really curious what strange isolation bubble certain business-owners live in, in which this kind of thing is considered a good idea. It never is, and yet, they keep popping up. If I felt my business was being unfairly accused (and it appears these accusations are entirely justified, anyway), I’d mount a vigorous defense, but this kind of thing is insanely idiotic.

    1. You must be young.  There was a time not that long ago where this kind of crap was rampant (it actually still is) but it’s only when these douchebags decide to bring their $#!T to the internet that they discover they are ridiculously outgunned.  Like all bullies, they are only powerful when isolated to their little corner of nowhere.  I’m glad that we are coming to an age where these sorry SOBs are getting called out and shut down. Yay, interwebs!

      1. I dunno about rampant.  Most small businesses I encounter are run by great people.  But in a nation with hundreds of thousands of small businesses, even a small percentage makes a huge number of assholes.

        And unlike the past, we now have the internet, and the Streisand effect, so every asshole can be an overnight sensation on Reddit and Yelp and so forth. It makes them look bigger than they are.

        1. When I was a grad student in Urbana we thought it would be a good idea to have the students in the department vote on their favorite places in town for a booklet distributed to new students. Unfortunately one wag put in “Willard Airport, departure lounge” and it shot to the top of the list..

    2. What makes you think it isn’t a good idea? You only hear about the times when it fails.

    1. That seems to be the company’s argument; however, when asked about it, they refuse to implement such rudimentary measures as, say, checking the names of the tickets against a manifest at the time of boarding. Also, some of those fined also claim that they’d accidentally handed the driver their return ticket instead of a departure ticket. Finally, the majority of these lawsuits haven’t been fined in Champaign County (where both the company and the university are located and where the vast majority of affected students live), but rather in Ford County, thirty miles away in the middle of nowhere. This makes it difficult for students to get there (as there’s no public transport), and prevents UIUC’s student legal services from representing them, as they will only do so for cases based in Champaign County.

      Besides, the threat of theft doesn’t justify their harassment of Redditors and others who give them negative reviews.

    1. I was following this drama and my biggest question was if SE had a monopoly. How does a good bus company not swoop in and take all the business?

      Go Peoria Charter!

  2. Correction: the company does not have any stops in Chicago.  They don’t pick up in Chicago and they don’t drop off in Chicago.  You can say “Chicago area” or “greater Chicagoland area” (that’s how we say it), but not “Chicago”.

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