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Taxicabs Take L.A. for a Ride

Sting operation finds that `scenic routes' and potentially rigged meters inflated costs half the time. Cabbies call the inquiry flawed.

September 23, 2006|Jessica Garrison and Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writers

Passengers have a 50-50 chance of being ripped off if they get into a taxi in the city of Los Angeles, according to the results of a city sting operation released Friday.

Over the last two months, inspectors posing as tourists and businesspeople took 30 taxi trips hailed from downtown, West Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport. About 2,300 city-regulated cabs troll Los Angeles.

Fifteen of those trips cost more than they should have, inspectors found, and nine of the trips were more than 10% higher than expected, leading inspectors to conclude that the overcharging was almost surely intentional.

Four instances of suspected fraud involved potentially rigged meters; almost all involved so-called scenic routes in which a driver did not take the most direct path to the passenger's destination.

By comparison, New York City officials say that their fraud rates are less than 10%.

Los Angeles officials reacted with shock and outrage, while some drivers and taxi company officials questioned the validity of the city's sting.

City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel called it unacceptable and said she would "not stand by while taxi drivers defraud the public."

Council President Eric Garcetti, noting Los Angeles' dependence on tourism, said the fraud "undermines our credibility and our economy as well as bilking those who are the most vulnerable."

But some drivers and taxi company administrators said they did not believe that there was so much fraud and cautioned against extrapolating from the small size of the sample. A few also said that they believed they had been wrongly accused.

"It is a total abuse and harassment," said driver Henry Dergevorkian, who has been driving a taxi for four years. He said he was manhandled and wrongly arrested by inspectors who impounded his car earlier this month as they looked for problems with his meter. They found nothing, he said.

Dergevorkian said he picked up passengers near USC and took them to the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

Because it was a Friday night, he said he recommended avoiding the traffic-clogged Hollywood Freeway and taking the Santa Monica Freeway to La Brea Avenue and proceeding north. Far from being a "scenic route," he said, this was the quickest way of moving through the city during rush hour.

William J. Rouse, general counsel for the Administrative Services Co-Op which oversees several cab cooperatives in Southern California, said the idea that half the drivers in the city are defrauding their customers is simply not credible.

Tom Drischler, the city's taxi administrator, said six of the 15 questioned trips involved overcharges of less than 10%, and it was "unclear whether it was intentional."

But in nearly 30% of cases, or nine out of 30, inspectors strongly suspected that they had been ripped off, Drischler said.

Officials said they had a good idea of what trips should cost based on their own calculations of distance, but they also had their own vehicle outfitted with a correctly calibrated meter that they used on test runs.

In some cases, the overcharge amounted to a few dollars, such as a trip from Westwood to Ogden Drive and 3rd Street near Beverly Hills that should have cost $15. The meter said $17. Still, Drischler said, "if you're doing that all the time, it adds up."

Other trips, however, were more blatant. On Sept. 8, inspectors got in a cab at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard and took it to Westwood. The charge, for a trip of about six miles, was $27. But when inspectors traced the same route in their test taxi earlier that day, their own meter read $18.40.

City officials began their stings, which took place mostly over the last week in August and the second week in September, after a KNBC-TV Channel 4 expose showed drivers cheating passengers by rigging their meters, at times, by remote control with their cellphones.

At the time, city officials said they thought that as many as 20% of cabs in the city could be outfitted with rigged meters.

Officials speculated that high gas prices could be contributing to higher than usual rates of fraud.

Drivers pay for their own gas and other expenses, as well as fees to cab companies. They keep whatever else they earn.

But many drivers have complained that they have not been able to pass the gas prices on to their customers, making it difficult for them to make ends meet.

"We do not condone this kind of meter rigging," said Betty Hung, a legal aid attorney working with the drivers to improve conditions. "But the city should be focusing on drivers' poverty conditions."

Drischler, the city's taxi administrator, said officials have launched a multi-pronged program to combat rigged meters and "scenic routes."

In recent meetings, members of the five-person board of taxicab commissioners have vowed to crack down on those who overcharge.

Earlier this month, the board conditionally approved new tamper-proof meters. Drivers also will be required to provide printed receipts for each taxi trip. Matt Szabo, spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the mayor believed that such reforms should be immediately implemented.

jessica garrison@latimes.com

joe.mathews@latimes.com

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