Crackdown on corrupt cabbies fails to enthuse

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Police campaign addresses symptoms, not cause, critics say

  An unregistered taxi waits for passengers in front of the Ben Thanh Market in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Residents are not hopeful the latest campaign against scam taxis will be effective.

It was close to midnight. The street was almost deserted and the taxi driver looked threatening.

Ono Ayumi was frightened.

The 27-year-old Japanese woman had taken a taxi from the Tan Son Nhat International Airport to De Tham Street in District 1. The meter read VND252,000 (US$12). When Ayumi gave him a VND500,000 note, he did not return the balance, but held up three fingers, indicating he wanted as many notes.

Ayumi gave him two more VND500,000 notes. But the taxi driver was not done. He demanded more. Another 1,000 yen ($12.5) changed hands, but the driver's desire was not sated. He drove the tourist to an ATM booth for her to withdraw more cash.

As soon as she entered the booth, he drove away with Ayumi's luggage. With the help of some Vietnamese friends, Ayumi reported the case to the Sai Gon Hoang Long Taxi Company, which identified the driver and announced his suspension pending a police investigation.

The robbery took place on March 29. Almost seven months later, the District 1 police division announced October 19 that they had arrested 38-year-old Nguyen Thanh Hai, the accused taxi driver.

City police have said they are taking tough measures against cabbies who fleece and rob customers, including pressing criminal charges in major cases, but the announcement has failed to inspire public confidence.

A police officer at the District 1 police division, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Vietweek that cabbies ripping off passengers by rigging meters, taking needless detours and even direct robbery has prompted the division "to launch a campaign to maintain security and order in the city's downtown area."

He said that in August, the division had arrested cabbie Nguyen Thanh Vu, 25, for robbery.

Vu, who was driving a Mai Linh Taxi, one of the most prestigious transportation firms in the country, had driven away with the passenger's property after she asked him to wait outside while she visited a shop on District 1's Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.

According to the police division's records, there are many unregistered taxis operating in front of the Ben Thanh Market and the backpacker area on De Tham and Pham Ngu Lao streets, hunting for unsuspecting prey.

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Nhat Thanh, chief investigator of the District 1 police force, said passenger victims should note the license plate and other information about the car and the driver when reporting a crime at the nearest police station.

Foreigners targeted

In a recent report about tourism security in the first half of this year, the HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism said dishonest cabbies have become a "phenomenon that has frustrated the public."

It said the cabbies' ploys include demanding that passenger pay in foreign currency at higher prices, rigging the meter, refusing to return change and even threatening passengers with robbery.

Their actions have spoiled the city's image, especially among foreign tourists, and made it less attractive, the report said, adding that punishments meted out so far have not been effective deterrents.

In HCMC, many illegal taxis fake the logos and colors of well known brands as they look to prey on foreign tourists.

Root of the problem

Expat residents feel the latest campaign announced by the police to bust illegal taxis and punish their drivers is not going to be very effective. They have seen all the posturing before, they say.

Alexander Simpson, a British expat in HCMC, said he did not think it would make much of a difference.

"There are so many taxis on the streets and there just aren't enough police around the city doing their jobs correctly," he said.

A foreign expat in HCMC, who wanted to be identified only as Lincoln, also doubted the latest crackdown on illegal taxis would be effective.

"After the required amount of time, the required number of well publicized arrests or confiscations, it will be back to business as usual," Lincoln said.

"Ultimately, nothing changes, there is no lasting effect, so the crackdowns, whether they are aimed at taxis, some form of traffic violators or whatever."

Ta Long Hy, chairman of the HCMC Taxi Association, also said the problems persist despite many police crackdowns because it does not have long term effects.

"We are treating taxis like they are private cars instead of a public means of transport."

Hy said the problem could be solved if the government offers special policies for taxis like lower taxes and strict management that would discourage people from investing in a private car and operate it illegally as a taxi.

It should make legal taxis more competitive than illegal ones, meaning it should be much cheaper for a company to buy a taxi than for someone to buy a car and operate it illegally as a taxi.

"That's the root of the problem. And it needs to be addressed there instead of treating symptoms of the problem with police campaigns," he said.

Lincoln agreed: "It seems to me that (the way) Vietnamese authorities go about law enforcement is wrong. They tackle the symptom instead of the cause."

He said authorities have to find out why there are so many illegal scam taxis and crackdown on the root cause, not its effect.

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