Consumer Law

Don't Let Your Cabbie Take You for a Ride

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It's a hustle-and-bustle world, and it seems everyone's in a rush all the time. You've got places to be, just like the hundreds or thousands of people jamming the city streets each day.

You're so busy and so distracted with getting there, do you ever simply hand the cab driver whatever amount he said you owed once you got to your destination. Without giving it thought, you hand over what you "owe," and probably a tip, too. Maybe it's time to re-think all that.

New York City Cabbies

Dr. Mitchell Lee regularly takes cabs to and from the New York University Medical Center in Manhattan. His usual fare is $5. Late in 2009, a cabbie charged him $7. When he questioned the charge, the cabbie offered him a "discount."

Dr. Mitchell didn't take the bait. He charged the full $7 fare to a credit card and then contacted the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (T&LC). It's in charge of many things, from making sure the City's taxis and other for-hire vehicles are safe, to setting the fares they may charge.

Dr. Mitchell's complaint led to an investigation by the T&LC. It found cabbies had bilked their customers for $8.3 million by overcharging fares. This was done over a two-year period and about 1.8 million cab rides.

How'd they do it? The cabbies set their meters at a higher rate than what they were supposed to be charging, and unaware riders simply paid what they were told to pay.

The City made efforts to refund the money to the bilked cab riders. It also installed new devices in cabs letting riders know if the meter rate is changed when they enter the cab. Riders have to authorize or accept the new rate before they can be charged.

Weights and Measures

Of course, a lesson to be learned here is to pay attention to the meter when you ride a cab, whether you're in New York City or Boise, Idaho. Not all cabbies are crooks, but you never know when you may meet one who is.

Scams Outside the Cab

Perhaps a bigger lesson is to understand that you could be victimized by a similar scam or crime without even looking at a cab. For instance, when was the last time you:

  • Put $15 dollars of gas in your car
  • Bought a gallon of milk
  • Bought a pound of lunch meat or cheese at a deli or supermarket
  • Had your groceries scanned at check-out

These and hundreds of other everyday sales and purchases - including cab fares - involve measuring or weighing whatever it is we're buying and making sure we get exactly what we're paying for. Do you want be charged $4.00 for a half gallon of gas when the sign says $4.00 per gallon?

Someone's Watching Out For You

There are groups keeping tabs on weights and measures to help keep things honest.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is federal agency. It works to make sure the same weights and measures are used throughout the US. A gallon of gas or milk should weigh the same whether you buy it in California or Maine. The NIST even has guidelines for taxi meters.

The National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) is a voluntary organization that tries to promote the states to use the same weights and measures by using the guidelines established by the NIST. And, practically every state or local government has some sort of office or agency in charge of keeping weights and measures fair and accurate.

Fraud is Fraud

Granted, the New York City cab scandal didn't involve defective or inaccurate meters - the cabbies simply set the meters too high. Regardless, as general rule, it's fraud whether you're charged too much because a scale or meter is purposefully manipulated to cheat you or it's inaccurate (and the seller knows it or hasn't had it tested properly). The store owner, cab company, and maybe even the worker or cabbie may face criminal charges or civil fines and penalties.

What You Can Do

Dr. Lee gives the perfect example of what you can do: Pay attention to what you're being charged and trust your instincts. If something doesn't seem right to you, it probably isn't. Now, no one's saying you should weigh your milk before you buy it or as soon as you get home from the market. But you probably can tell when something's a little off - that lunch meat feels light or the gas needle didn't move far enough.

On most scales and gas pumps, you should be able to see some sort of sticker or "seal" from a state or local government agency. They usually mean the device has been tested and can be trusted for accuracy.

Speak Up!

Again, do as Dr. Lee did and call the proper authorities if you suspect something's wrong:

  • Some states and cities have special agencies for taxi cabs, like T&LC
  • Many states have an agency devoted to all sorts of weights and measures, such as New York and Florida
  • Some states handle weights and measures at the local level. For example, in Ohio, the auditors of each county are in charge of it, together with things like property taxes and accounting services for various agencies

Check with the consumer protection agency in your state or with your local Better Business Bureau (BBB) if you're not sure about who to contact.

Buyer beware, remember? There's always someone out there ready and willing to take your money. More often than not, if you stay on your toes you can stop it from happening and save yourself - and others - some hard-earned money.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What can I do if the company refuses to refund what I think are overcharges for cab fare, gas or groceries?
  • As a store owner, do I have to let agency officials into my store unannounced to test my scales?
  • I didn't know my employees were overcharging customers so how can I be responsible for their wrongdoings?
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