New York City taxi driver swipes passenger’s iPod — and gets away with it

Lynne Lenhart’s daughter had her $140 iPod taken from her on a recent visit to New York. The thief was a taxi driver who remains at large, with the apparent blessing of the government and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.

This sad — and apparently unsolvable — case raises some important questions about the use of credit cards. I’ll get to those in a moment. But first, let me hand the mic over to Lenhart.

My 20 year-old-daughter recently visited New York City by herself, and had a bad taxi experience that I am still furious about.

After the driver took her to JFK airport to catch her flight home, she tried to pay using her credit card. She had been using her credit card to pay for all her taxi cab rides.

This time the card was not approved. She knew that she had enough money on the card to pay for the ride, so she called up the bank to find out what was wrong. They agreed that she had enough to pay for it but the driver’s machine used for the credit cards was not working. All the numbers were not going over either due to an equipment malfunction or a bad signal near the airport.

The driver got mad and called the Port Authority. When they got involved, they told her that if she couldn’t pay, then they would have to “book” her.

She was humiliated and scared that she was going to be arrested. They told her that she would have to give him something and she was forced to give the driver her $140 iPod to pay for a $50 cab ride. It feels, to me, like she was the victim of a shakedown. She got the taxi driver’s number.

I have shared this experience with friends and family and they are all disgusted and not planning on vacationing in New York any time soon. Is there anyone that I can contact about this situation or is this the way things are done in New York?

I recommended that Lenhart write a brief, polite letter to the Port Authority and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, requesting the return of her daughter’s iPod. Here’s what happened:

I heard from the Port Authority by phone and e-mail. They apologized and asked for more information. I sent them what my daughter remembered. Since my daughter did not get the names of the officers, they are unable to pursue it further and consider the case closed.

I heard from the Taxi Commission. They brought the driver in to interview and after discussing the case with the driver and their legal department, it was decided that I would have to deal with the driver on my own. They said that since he was forced to accept the iPod as payment, by the Port Authority, they were under no obligation to force him to return it. They gave me his phone number. However, after repeated attempts, I have been unable to contact him.

I called the Taxi Commission a few days ago, to see if they could help me and have received no response. Then I contacted the Port Authority and found out what they had decided. All they could do was give me the name of the taxi cab company.

Is Lenhart out of options? I think small claims court might be her daughter’s next stop, although it might not be worth the effort.

The bigger question here is: What happens when a travel company can’t accept your credit card because of equipment problems? The cab driver in Lenhart’s case should have been able to accept an imprint and a signature. Confiscating her iPod was unnecessary.

The taxi driver should free the iPod and accept her $50 as soon as possible.

Update (Jan. 21, 2009): The NY Post has published a story about this incident.

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