How to spot (and avoid) taxi scams while you are on a trip

How to spot (and avoid) taxi scams while you are on a trip

We don’t want to point fingers, but we will make a frank statement: in plenty of countries, both first world and developing, the leading tourist scams involve taxis. It’s almost as if there’s a universal trend to it.

While it is common sense to get travel insurance to safeguard yourself against travel incidents, it would be infinitely much better if you can identify and avoid them from the beginning. 

But taxi scams are so common and effective, so the question is – how do you watch out for it?

Do not enter the cab until you’ve agreed on the price and route

Unlike many other con-jobs, where you can walk away anytime, taxi scams only give you a small window to escape. Once you get in, you are at the mercy of the driver. You are in a foreign country and the roads are unfamiliar. In some cases, you might be on a deserted stretch of road, with no other forms of transport. At that point, the taxi driver can quote almost any price, and you’re not in a position to argue.

What are you going to do? Get kicked out of the cab and walk to the nearest building, which is 50 miles away?

And of course, the implied threat of physical violence is also a lot higher. You’re stuck in a moving vehicle with the taxi scammer, who has total control of the wheel. You can be brought to an alley where the driver’s friends are waiting to rough you up.

That is why you should never get into a cab until the fare and route has been set. The latter is relatively easy to do now that you have Google Maps on your phone.

Trust us – getting into a cab before you set the price can get a lot worse than, say, a restaurant or shop scam, where you can at least leave or call the police on the spot.

Suggest the route and constantly check your location

Sometimes, you can’t tell if the taxi driver is trying to pull a fast one on you. You’re not familiar with the roads at all; and in some older cities, streets are not laid out like a grid. They’re a knot of roundabouts and one-way turns, which are nigh impossible to figure out.

This is very much unlike a food scam where you know something’s not quite right. If you have to pay US$600 for lunch, you know that’s crazy. You can protest and demand help from the police. It might or might not work, but at least you’ll be aware enough to do something.

With taxis, it can be really hard to tell if you’re being scammed. Maybe the driver was being truthful, and his detour was to avoid a traffic jam. Or maybe he wanted to travel twice the necessary distance, because he wants to maximise his fare.

Again, reading up on your route and suggesting a preferred direction is important. This tells the driver that you are fully aware and know if he’s (figuratively) taking you for a ride. Be sure of where you are going, research the route and constantly check your location with the GPS and map to see if you are on the right track.

Take a photo with the driver

Taxi drivers number in the thousands, and they move about the city in random patterns. If one ripped you off, you can forget about finding him or her again. While they might have plate numbers, chances are you didn’t take it down (and they can easily swap plates).

In most countries, there are also no records of who a taxi driver picks up. That makes it easier for them to deny ever having met you; and it’s not as if the police can do much without evidence.

So make it a point to get a photo of the driver. But do it subtly, start a conversation with the driver. Even if the driver does not speak your language, just smile, nod your head, point at sights and when he least expects it, take a selfie with the driver. A photo will deter the driver from any funny business, since there is a way to pinpoint and recognise the said driver. Even if it is your word against the scammer on wheels, at least the photo will serve to warn others on social media.

Bonus tip – do not step into a “private taxi”, or any taxi where the driver’s identification isn’t displayed.

Always travel together, especially after a night out

If you’ve been clubbing or partying, then chances are you need a cab to get to your hotel - few people can manage navigating a foreign city when they’re up to their ears in alcohol.

This is when taxis are most often called; and if you’re unlucky, it’s a scammer who responds. That’s when the scammer takes advantage to overcharge you, or in some cases just resorts to outright thievery.

Whereas most scammers are people you bump into, taxi scammers are often the ones you deliberately call when you’ve had too much to drink. Let the significance of that sink in. 

Opportunity makes a criminal. The driver may usually be an honest person - but if you’re blacked out in the seat with your wallet sticking out, or so drunk you can’t tell between $10 and $100, the temptation to swindle you could prove too great.

So never, ever party alone. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable. Even if no one is driving, make sure there is a designated person to take care of the group. Because having a sober person around can lead to…

Witnesses and proof to back your story

Taxi-scams often degenerate into a “he says / I say” situation - the police are forced to pick one person’s words over another.

This is because taxis are an enclosed environment. Once you’re in there, it’s just you and the driver. Even if you’re genuinely being ripped off, who’s there to witness it? There is no one to act as a witness, and not even a street camera to capture the incident.

This is why taxi scammers are so common and brazen: they think you’ll never have proof. At least with most other scams, there’s a chance an honest bystander will intervene, or provide an eyewitness account.

So always make sure there’s someone along for the ride. If you are traveling alone, then just leave your voice recorder on for the duration of the trip.

Here is another tip – if you are using Google Maps, you will have a timeline of where you have traveled. That is your proof right there, to see if the driver took you on a wild goose chase instead of the most direct and efficient route.

Other ways to avoid taxi scams

Your best bet is to use ride-sharing apps such as Uber (or some other local equivalent you can download). The prices are fixed based on a fair system of supply and demand, so you’re less likely to be taken advantage of.

Most ride-sharing apps accept credit cards as a form of payment, so do enable your credit card for overseas use. Maximise your spend with the right credit card for the ride-sharing app, such as the UOB PRVI Miles World Master Card, which provides 2.4 miles instead of 1.4 miles per dollar spent when you use it overseas.

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