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THE NATION

Cabbies' latest roadblock: spies

'Secret riders' will watch N.Y. taxi drivers for offenses like talking on cellphones or rejecting credit cards.

January 30, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The yellow cab pulled over to pick up a passenger across from the Empire State Building as its driver, Mahbub Hossain, chatted on his cellphone headset.

If this had been a test, Hossain would have ended up with a $200 fine.

Driving a cab while talking on a cellphone is not allowed in New York, and neither is honking excessively, treating customers rudely, not speaking English or refusing to allow customers to pay with a credit card, according to the city's newly revised Taxicab Rider Bill of Rights.

But it's not hard to find a driver who commits some, or all, of those infractions. That is why the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates the industry and its workers, announced last week that it would send out as many as 100 undercover agents daily to monitor cabdrivers in what they are calling Operation Secret Rider. Posing as customers, the agents will monitor the city's 13,100 yellow-cab drivers to make sure they adhere to the rules. Drivers who don't can be fined up to $350 for one violation.

Many cabbies say the undercover observation is the latest burden in an industry that is becoming more strenuous and less lucrative.

"It's totally annoying," Hossain said after hanging up his cellphone to answer a reporter's questions. "We don't think it's fair."

A father of two, the 38-year-old has driven a cab for a decade. Last year, he and fellow drivers went on strike twice to protest the city's new mandatory credit card machines and automatic mapping systems. Since then, he said, his car lease payments have increased because of the $3,000 machine installation costs; he also is losing money on the 5% credit card fee.

"We pay from our pocket," he said. "This year the economy is terrible. . . . People are not going out to eat, people are not going to the theater. Some of my [cabdriver] friends are moving to other states -- Pennsylvania, Virginia."

With undercover agents targeting drivers, cabbies say, it is likely that more will turn to other jobs or will leave New York to find work.

"There's enough stress already in this business. It's sort of like us against them," said driver Frank Mestey, 52, whose friend left the business recently after 14 years to operate a newsstand. "People will say, you know, 'Do I really need this? Why should I be in a cab with everything against me?' "

The taxi commission says the sting operation is needed to address numerous complaints from riders who say drivers are not following the rules -- especially by not taking credit cards. Last week, the New York Daily News sent a reporter on a dozen rides and found that five cabbies talked on their phones and two refused credit cards, citing the 5% fee.

"The bottom line is that drivers will never know whether their passenger is a secret rider," said the taxi commissioner, Matthew Daus. "So the sooner they get their priorities in order, the better."

Cabby Mahamed Zakout said he understood why the commission was enforcing its rules so stringently. Some cabdrivers, he said, cheat the system by putting fake numbers in the GPS that records their fares, so it doesn't keep track of how much money they earned during the year. Then they scheme against the federal tax and social welfare systems, he said, by lying about their incomes.

Zakout, 31, says he abides by the law but has had enough of the increasing stresses that come with driving a cab.

"I used to make $1,000 a week," he said. "Right now, I don't make more than $600. It's not fair. I drive seven days a week, 12 hours a day." One day last week, he went home after one shift with $80 in his pocket.

It has always been a grueling job, Zakout said. The long hours give him lower-back pains.

And now, he said, he does not know who is spying and waiting to slap him with a fine. One rider recently complained that Zakout's driving was reckless, and it cost him $500.

"This is my last six months. That's it," he said. "I'm not driving a cab no more. That's it."

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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