Undercover press expose widespread taxi scams

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Taxi bosses encourage drivers to rig meters as authorities fail to stop imposters from preying on tourists
  A taxi waits for passengers in downtown Ho Chi Minh City on August 21. The media has found that many taxis (registered and unregistered alike) have modified their meters to rip off customers.

On August 12, two Australian tourists walked out of the hydrofoil station in downtown Ho Chi Minh City and were immediately greeted by a taxi driver.

The driver loaded their luggage in the trunk of a car bearing logos for the Minh Duc Taxi Company and left the curb without turning on the meter.

The tourists asked their driver to take them to a hotel on Do Quang Dau Street, three kilometers away.

The ride took longer than it should have.

At their destination, their driver demanded VND400,000 (US$20) for a ride that should have cost VND50,000 ($2.40). After his passengers complained, the driver knocked VND30,000 off their fare and drove away.

Stories about scam taxis have dominated the pages of local papers for years now. Guidebooks and locals typically warn tourists and foreigners to take caution and avoid taxis that do not belong to the two largest companies: Vinasun and Mai Linh.

However, taxi queues at the airport and other major tourist destinations remain dominated by cars belonging to small or unknown companies. Authorities have dodged inquiries about a lack of effective enforcement or oversight.

An officer at the Ben Thanh Ward police station told Vietweek they could only arrange an appointment to answer questions after this story's deadline.

Violations appear to continue unabated.

The HCMC Transport Department logged 130 violations during the first six months this year. The most common breaches included a lack of mandatory light-boxes and meters. The inspectors also noted a significant number of drivers for using rigged meters or marking their cars with forged company logos.

Transport inspectors in HCMC temporarily confiscated a vehicle registered to Taxi Cooperative 27.7 after its driver was accused of ripping off two Spanish tourists on June 25.

According to Jose Angel Matas, one of the victims, the driver charged them VND394,500 (US$18.79) for a one kilometer ride from Ben Thanh Market to the backpacker district in a taxi marked Mai Linh.

The price was reflected on the meter, Matas said.

After Matas threatened to call the police, the driver, Nguyen Thanh Kiet, agreed to cut the fare in half.

When Matas went to a Mai Linh office and complained about the ruse, company representatives determined that Kiet did not work for them and was only posing as their driver. They notified local police, who confiscated Kiet's car and concluded that it was indeed marked with counterfeit company logos. They later fined him and released his vehicle.

Meter manipulation

Police and transportation officials have failed to explain how drivers like Kiet continue to prey on tourists throughout the city, prompting a rash of media investigations.

Last week, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper revealed that dishonest drivers now rig their meters to remote control devices that allow them to bump up their fares. The investigation followed a driver, identified only as H., as he sought these devices out from a variety of shops.

H. visited a notorious meter rigger named Tam on Street 11 in District 7 and had a remote-controlled device installed in his taxi for VND1.7 million (US$82).

Tam was quoted in the story as asking why the undercover driver had not made an appointment.

The story also described a number of downtown taxi drivers who had outfitted their vehicles with removable light-boxes and company logos to dodge transportation inspectors.

A reporter from VTC News recently visited another infamous "meter mechanic" on An Duong Vuong Street in District 5.

"How much do you want to increase the meter [every time you press the remote]? VND10,000?," VTC News quoted the mechanic as asking.

"That's too much," a cabbie replied. "VND7,000 is enough."

The reporter described how the mechanic quickly disassembled the meter, installed an illegal chip and sealed it back up using counterfeit inspection stickers. The process took just 15 minutes and cost VND350,000 ($17).

In addition to remote controls, VTC News reported that dishonest cabbies have rigged their meters to jump at the push of a button or the honk of their horn. Many taxi drivers said that such manipulations were much more common among the driver's of unregistered taxis.

Paying to play

Despite all of the negative press, unregistered and suspicious-looking taxis continue to abound outside popular tourist destinations like Ben Thanh Market, the Hydrofoil Station, the War Remnants Museum and An Dong Market.

However a recent Tuoi Tre investigation revealed that a taxi's affiliation with an established company or collective may not offer much in the way of consumer protection.

In many cases, these firms provide drivers with company logos and registration materials in exchange for a single payment. After that, their drivers operate independently, without any actual connection with the firm.

Some companies even advised their drivers to rig their meters.

On August 13, an undercover Tuoi Tre reporter visited the office of Taxi Cooperative 27.7 on Pho Quang Street in Tan Binh District posing as an applicant.

A company employee informed him that he would need only to demonstrate ownership of a vehicle and pay a VND300,000 sign-up fee to obtain a company license.

After that, it was up to the applicant to outfit his vehicle with a light box, communication device, meter and the cooperative logo. The only criteria for maintaining a Cooperative 27.7 license, Tuoi Tre reported, was a VND200,000 monthly fee.

The employee admitted that Cooperative 27.7 had no way of disciplining drivers accused of cheating passengers. The cooperative's complaint policy was described as follows:

"We call the passengers and try to calm them down, then we call and ask the drivers to return their money if the complaints are really bad," he said, adding that drivers should take care to only overcharge passengers an "acceptable" amount.

At the Minh Duc Taxi Cooperative on Tan Phu District's Do Nhuan Street, an employee asked a reporter posing as an applicant to submit copies of his identification papers, driver's license, vehicle registration and a one-time payment of VND4.2 million ($202).

The driver was also told to outfit his vehicle with a light-box, logo and company phone number himself.

When the undercover reporter asked whether he could rip off his passengers, the employee replied: "Sure. But you should modify the meter to increase a little at a time to avoid being detected."

Ta Long Hy, chairman of the HCMC Taxi Association, admitted that many taxi cooperatives register drivers for money without exercising any oversight over their nominal employees.

"It is too easy to register to become a taxi driver at these companies and cooperatives," he said, adding that his association has reported the problem to relevant authorities many times.

Hy failed to come up with a definitive answer when asked why authorities have not been able to solve the problem after years of complaints.

He told Vietweek that relevant governmental agencies should require taxi firms to strictly monitor their drivers and coordinate with traffic inspectors to handle violations.

Ly Tan Tai, an official at the city Transport Department also could not pinpoint why more progress had not been made.

He told Vietweek that his department had coordinated with traffic police to control the situation. The use of unregistered taxis and meter tampering have both decreased in frequency while violations like refusing change or taking unnecessarily long routes have increased.

He said his department's inspectors had proposed that all taxis provide local traffic police phone numbers to passengers, not only the company's number, so customers can report violations more effectively.

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