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Avoiding Taxi Scams

How to Avoid Being Ripped Off By a Taxi Driver

Developed-world cities regulate the number of taxis on their streets so every driver will be assured a certain amount of business. In return every taxi is periodically inspected for safety, and must charge the same metered rate and wait time, which kicks in when the cab is stationary or moving less than ten mph. This compensates the driver for traffic.

In much of the developing world, however, there is little or no regulation of the taxi business. Anyone who has a car can become a taxi driver. It thus becomes dog-eat-dog for customers, with a bargaining system evolving that favors locals who know the score, and rips-off those who don't.

What's the best way avoid taxi scams?
There are several ways you can avoid being "taken for a ride" by a cabby in an unknown city. Most methods revolve around doing your homework beforehand — as always, the smarter a consumer you are, the less likely you'll be ripped off. So heed the following tips and enjoy a hassle-free cab ride to the destination you desire.

For starters, always use an established taxi company. This is easy in a developed country but in a developing country you are on your own. Independent, non-licensed drivers are not obliged to follow industry regulations, though they will try and tempt you with lower fares. If you can't distinguish a legit company from a fraudulent one, inquire at the airport information desk or your hotel's concierge desk. They might also be able to help you with any communication problems you may encounter — if you don't know the language, have a local write down your destination on a piece of paper for the cab driver to read.

You can also ask these same resources what the charge basis is for cabs in the area. Some drivers will charge you a metered, per-person rate. Other cabbies will try to tack on surcharges for baggage, rush-hour service, or additional passengers. Find out if these unusual fees are to be expected in the area you are traveling through before getting in the cab. Also, be on the lookout for drivers in foreign countries who expect you to haggle over fares. In these cases, negotiate your price first.

The key to successful bargaining is to ask the fare before getting in. Once you sit down the driver knows he has you, and you're off for a ride. Open the front door or lean in the window to get a quote to your destination. If it seems too high (and it probably will), immediately reply, "No, that's too much," and make an appropriate counter-offer. Note that a $10 fare in developing countries doesn't happen every day for every driver. Most short trips around downtown should probably cost no more than $2 or $3.

Even if you bargain well you will probably not get as good a rate as the locals. The driver knows you can afford more, so his lowest acceptable rate is likely to be higher. Another thing to do before driving away: Comparison shop by quickly scanning a few waiting taxis for their posted per-mile rate. And be sure to have small bills on hand to prevent the cab driver from helping himself to an exorbitant tip. If you're short on cash altogether, look for a cab that will accept travelers checks and credit cards.

Upon entering the cab, jot down the cab's registration number and make sure the driver hasn't left any time on the meter. If he has, ask him to turn it to zero. Then, request a signed receipt, specifying pick-up and drop-off points. This will make him think twice about taking any "secret shortcuts," and it will give you more leverage if you're forced to report your driver to the taxi authority. Finally, ask the driver to take you on the cheapest, most direct route. Bring along a map of the area (you can pick up a free copy at any major hotel or car-rental desk) and point the route out to the driver if he goes astray.

Assuming that your life was not seriously threatened and you were charged a fair price for your ride, a tip is probably in order. Though tipping customs vary around the world, it's customary to tip 15 percent of the total fare for a ride in the United States — this generally holds true for trips abroad as well.

Safety Advice for Catching Taxis and Minicabs
Unfortunately, there are dishonest taxi drivers who take advantage of tourists. Their favorite victims are new arrivals at both airports and train stations.  Take these simple steps to protect yourself:

  • Do not hail a minicab or accept a lift from a minicab. This is not legal and you have no guarantee that the driver is in fact a minicab driver at all. You are also not insured in the event of an accident if you hail down a minicab, as you have not been registered by the company as a passenger. Black cabs can be hailed legally and safely.

  • Plan ahead how to get home before you go out. Making decisions before you go out is much safer, particularly if you are going to be drinking alcohol.

  • Take a business card with you when you go out with the phone number of a reputable minicab or taxi company, and phone for the cab when you need it. Alternatively, walk to a nearby minicab office to order a cab.

  • If you are at a club, or restaurant and don't have the number of a cab company, ask the staff if they can recommend one.

  • Try to go home with a friend, preferably to the same address. You could arrange for them to stay over at your place or vice versa — this can also save a bit of money.

  • Try not to let anyone overhear you ordering a cab — if they hear your name and destination, they may be able to pretend to be the cab you've ordered.

  • Whenever possible, ask for the driver's name, make and color of car. If necessary, ask to be phoned back.

  • If you are going to a friend's house, you could phone to let them know that you've ordered a cab, where you've ordered it from and the name of the company so that they know when to expect you and how to trace you if you're late.

  • Don't approach a car you think is your cab. The cab you ordered will always approach you.

  • Ask for driver ID before getting into the car. Make sure it identifies the driver as being from the company you rang to order the car. Ask the driver the name and destination he has been given to check he is your driver - do not, for example, ask if he is picking up Mary for Ealing as anyone could confirm that they are there to pick up Mary from Ealing. Don't get into a cab you haven't ordered.

  • Sit in the back seat of the car.

International Taxi Scams
This is a third-world warhorse. You see, over there, in the face of overwhelming poverty, everyone is on the take. Rickshaw drivers, travel agents, hotel waiters: all of them have connections, and all receive commissions for steering you to the "right" place, never mind where you actually want to go.

You get off a train and into a rickshaw or taxi. The driver asks if you need help finding a hotel. You say you have reservations somewhere, whereupon he tells you that this is a crazy city and you'd better call to check your reservations. Claiming to know all the hotels in town, he hands you a business card with a phony number. When you call, his friend answers, saying that all the rooms are booked and your reservation is cancelled. Smart enough to recognize this for the scam this is, you insist on being taken to the hotel anyway. On the way, the driver makes several unplanned stops at rug and marble stores and urges you to get out and look. When you finally get to the hotel, you pass through the restaurant on the way to the reception, and the headwaiter stops you and warns you that all the rooms are booked, but there are vacancies at the "very nice" hotel next door. This can continue indefinitely.

Hey, didn't we pass that mule twice already?
If at the end of the ride the driver demands a ridiculously large payment, that's extortion. Place a fair amount on the seat next to you and get out.

For meter rate fares, you always only owe for the shortest distance to your destination, unless you specify a longer but timelier or more scenic route. If in doubt, ask the driver to trace the route on a map, which he should have. Never reward a driver for making two circles on a one-circle run, or for otherwise wasting your time. Good taxi drivers immediately indicate the meter will be discounted if a wrong turn is made or an exit is missed.


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