Do taxi drivers prey on tourists?

How would you like to get ripped off today? / Photo by twicepix

It happened again to Peter Lawton last week. He got scammed by another cab driver, he says.

He’d caught a taxi to the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica. When he arrived, Lawton, who is from Albuquerque, N.M., didn’t bother counting the change.

“I trusted the driver,” he says. “I was screwed for about $12.”

Verifying he had the correct change would have required calculating the exchange rate between the Costa Rican colón, which is worth about 20 cents, and the greenbacks with which he’d paid the driver. But Lawton says he was tired and just wanted to get on the plane.

Do taxi drivers prey on tourists? The question is bound to offend the cab drivers who in their spare time love to troll sites like this one. Welcome, fellas. And no, I’m not talking about you. You care enough about your industry’s reputation to post a comment here. I wish there were more like you out there.

I’m talking about the other cab drivers, like the one Lawton encountered in Buenos Aires a few years ago — again, on his way to the airport.

“The cabby seemed pleasant and quoted me a 135 peso fare,” he says. “It was a long drive. When we arrived it was dark.”

Lawton handed him 200 pesos and asked for a 50-note. But when he tried to buy dinner with it, he saw that it was counterfeit note.

Scammed!

(Incidentally, Lawton says the rip-offs don’t just happen south of the border. He says he was snookered for an extra $10 by a New York cabbie as a youth when his parents put him in a tax to the airport. The driver gave him a “scenic” tour of Manhattan, which he hadn’t asked for.)

Today’s taxi scams are more subtle. Instead of charging city rates, they’ll switch the meter to more expensive suburban rates when you’re not looking. The mastermind behind one such scam, accused of defrauding more than 2,500 passengers of $11,690, was arrested last year in New York. It was reportedly the biggest taxi-cheating ring in history.

“I’m tired of the rip-offs,” Lawton told me.

Me too.

Like Lawton, I’ve had my own taxi troubles in the past. The most notable one: I was fired as a columnist years ago for defending cab drivers’ rights to not pick up passengers in a dangerous neighborhood. (My politically-correct editor thought I was out of line. We had a little disagreement, and I got the pink slip. Her loss.)

I’m also on the record as taking a dim view of the opportunistic taxi operators at Newark airport, who charge a flat rate for rides into New York — cash only. If you don’t have the $64, no worries. There’s an ATM with a hefty surcharge conveniently located next to the stand.

Can you say “rip-off”?

Fortunately, I discovered an app for my iPhone called GroundLink, which offers a car service for roughly the same price as a cab, and I’ve never looked back.

Taxi scams can take many forms. One of the most common ones is the “per person” charge. That’s where you agree on one price, but when you get to your destination, the driver changes his rate because the initial quote was based on just one passenger. A little misunderstanding. Language barriers can make this one easier to pull off.

Other taxi shenanigans include the ones Lawton experienced — the “scenic” ride and the wrong-change scam. And finally, the driver can simply change the price, jacking up your rate from a reasonable fare to a few hundred dollars. Since you’re in a foreign country, they assume you’ll pay without questioning. (Often, visitors do, fearful they might face a caning after spending a weekend in a Third World prison.)

Actually, there are easy ways to avoid getting taken by a taxi driver. If the cab doesn’t use a meter, agree on a fare before you step into the vehicle, and make sure you ask if it’s per person or for the whole group. Use your smartphone to route your map, and if the driver veers off course, say something.

Pay with a credit card or with your cell phone. (In Frankfurt, Germany, you can use cell phone micropayments to settle up.) If you can’t do that, then use exact change to avoid the possibility of receiving bogus currency.

And most important, never keep your luggage in the trunk. If you have a disagreement with the driver, he’ll keep your personal belonging hostage until you pay up.

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