R. Paul Wilson On: Taxi Scams
If you travel the world, ride share services like Uber, Lyft and others have become an invaluable tool to navigate new cities, but – as with all services – there are bad apples who seek to rob customers with a grab-bag of mini-scams.
This is far from a comprehensive list of cons associated with ride share providers but as always, whenever traveling, pay special attention to how much you are being charged and be aware you might fall into a well-practiced, inescapable trap without doing anything wrong.
The Taxi Tax
A friend once told me he expected to be ripped off at least once in any foreign city by crooked taxi drivers.
Perhaps he took a lot more taxis than I did but my experience is that it only happens from time to time and usually when I have failed to take precautions or pay attention to what’s happening around me.
Take Atocha railway station in Madrid for example.
A taxi from there to Plaza Mayor is not an enormous amount but one Sunday, with family, I got into a cab and on arrival was overcharged by more than double!
The driver used a technique I had experienced before, where he stopped traffic behind him to apply more pressure to me to act quickly.
The last time this happened was over 20 years ago and the scenario was identical but on that occasion, I was on my own and happy to put up a fight until local police intervened.
Thankfully, they sent the driver on his way once the police officer learned what he was trying to charge me.
This time, there were no helpful officers of the law, and I was with my kids who didn’t need to see me get into another argument with a scamming taxi driver (I once faced off with an aggressive New York driver who made a blatant attempt to take us on a tour of Manhattan instead of going directly to our hotel) so I paid up and spent the rest of the afternoon fuming.
That’s the problem with this type of con: It’s a trap that takes full advantage of your situation and offers almost no way out unless you are willing to cause a traffic jam, start a fight or in some cases, get arrested (local gendarmes are not always so helpful to out-of-towners).
Scams such as overcharging or taking tourists for a longer ride are not very sexy but are commonplace in many locations and we can all fall foul of a dishonest driver.
Sadly, there’s not a lot one can do unless you can prove the driver is scamming you.
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The Lisbon Switch
A more sophisticated cash scam in Lisbon took advantage of a well-engineered misunderstanding where the driver would receive a 20, passed from the back seat by unwary passengers.
The driver would then switch the 20 (unseen by his passengers) and hold up a 10 while saying something in Portuguese.
This caused tourists to either assume they handed over a 10 instead of a 20 and correct that “mistake” OR challenge the driver by asserting they gave him a 20 not a 10.
And here was the genius of this ploy: If the passenger corrected their “mistake” and handed over a 20, the driver made an extra 10 euros but if his passengers were certain they gave 20 from the outset, the driver (in broken English or French or German) would say “I only have this – no change!” as if he had been holding up the 10 to illustrate he only had large bills and no coins to make change with!
The result of this cleverly-engineered confusion was that people would often be embarrassed for suspecting the driver and let them keep the change!
Personally, I use ride share services like Uber and Lyft all over the world and while I believe they are an excellent modern convenience for travelers, users must exercise caution whenever they use them in unfamiliar places.
Rideshare problems range from questionable (and annoying) practices to outright fraud and on rare occasions, real danger to passengers.
These are not the norm but from place to place, problems can be more or less common depending on multiple factors such as local laws and enforcement of ride share rules.
Removing cash from the equation and paying a large company through trusted payment portals would seem to protect us from many types of fraud but some drivers have found ways to add unwarranted fees or penalty payments that can be difficult to challenge.
Wet Seats And Dented Doors
Passengers in multiple countries have encountered the “damage scam” where they are sent a claim from the driver shortly after their ride with a photograph that claims the customer accidentally or willfully caused some damage to upholstery or bodywork.
I find this scam interesting since users who complain about it often seem credible and even report receiving photos of damage taken during the daytime when the ride happened at night and the claim was sent immediately after, while it was STILL dark!
I’ve seen enough of these to be sure some drivers may be taking advantage but how many times can one driver claim passenger damage or cleaning fees before the ride-share company flags them as suspicious?
Certainly if a driver’s door is dented, he or she could get away with charging a customer for the repair even if they had nothing to do with it and it is not easy to claim back funds deducted as the result of such a claim.
Multiple ride-share customers have reported being charged large sums for damage they didn’t do with scant or suspicious evidence provided by the driver and typically the ride-share company sides with the driver meaning claims are rarely refunded.
One victim was able to prove that a photograph of “vomit” used to deduct $150 from his credit card was taken at an entirely different time and location thanks to the geotag on the image file BUT the company still refused to respond until he took his story to the local news and the driver was suspended.
Some people recommend taking a photo of the seats before you leave a car to prove they weren’t soiled in any way OR to take a picture of any stains you might notice when getting into the car (after the ride, it’s already too late).
I’m not sure either of these precautions are practical or effective but any local authority that permits ride share companies to operate should ensure they police their own drivers to weed out any bad apples.
Less costly but no less annoying are the drivers who flaunt company rules with regard to cleanliness, speed, safety and pickup or drop-off of passengers.
For example, drivers can’t see their destination until the last minute and can only cancel a couple of times before being penalized but it seems to happen a lot in certain cities whenever I book a short ride.
If you’ve ever been to the impromptu nightclub known as the ride-share pickup zone at Las Vegas airport on a busy night, you can expect to have several of your booked rides cancel at the very last minute if your journey isn’t far enough.
In these cases, the driver would rather cancel and go around again in the hope of picking up a more lucrative fare.
There also seems to be a way that drivers can beat the system once they realize the ride isn’t worth their time.
I assume that on some apps the destination is revealed as the driver gets close to their pickup and at that moment they can veer in a different direction and cause the pickup time to jump on the passenger’s app.
If you’ve ever watched a driver get close and then turn off in another direction (increasing their arrival time) then perhaps they’re trying to dump your ride or force a cancellation.
In some cases this can incur a charge meaning the driver gets paid without having to give anyone a ride.
In other words, a rogue driver can make money purely by driving in circles AWAY from the pickup location!
The Other Side
There’s another side to this issue and it’s with you, the passenger.
Many drivers wisely employ dash cams that also record inside the vehicle and YouTube is littered with videos of nasty, petulant, entitled, and violent passengers who damage cars, attack drivers and act like assholes as if the driver isn’t another human being who deserves respect.
Driver’s scams do happen but if you suspect something or have a concern or a request (such as a particular route) for goodness sake, be polite, kind and patient.
An issue of real concern is driver behavior and driving style.
Always issue a complaint if the driver is needlessly aggressive to you or other drivers on the road and definitely complain if they drive like maniacs!
Even if the driver is rude or nasty or causes other problems, wait until you are safely out of the car and deal only with the ride share company when you have a genuine complaint.
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Lead image: Lexi Anderson/Unsplash