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Economy pushes cabbies to illegally pickup passengers from street

During New York City's evening rush hour, commuters and tourists looking for taxis are often solicited by drivers unregistered with the Taxi and Limousine Commision. (Photo by Willie Davis)

More rogue cabbies without permits are clogging midtown streets with their black Town Cars and preying on New Yorkers and tourists desperate for a ride, industry insiders say.

According to cabbies and taxi reps, the economy has pushed drivers, some who have livery cabs and others who are unaffiliated with any company, to illegally hunt for passengers at transportation hubs, the Jacob Javits Center and in midtown.

“Tourists take them. Especially on Fridays or when its raining, that’s when it’s the most desperate,” said Aroop Chatterjee, 28, a midtown worker. “I don’t trust them.”

The gypsy cabs, whicheven include limos from New Jersey, may provide respite on rainy nights, but the illegal convenience is dangerous and passengers are often ripped off.

“They size people up,” said Taxi and Limousine Commission commissioner Matthew Daus, who reported being “poached” by gypsy cabs himself.

Others, however, say they get a better deal from the imposters.

"It's cheaper," said Felix Gates, 56, a Lower East Side resident who takes livery cabs once or twice a week. " And in certain places, you can't even find a yellow cab."

The city’s 13,200 yellow cabs pay top dollar for the exclusive right to pick up street hails. Livery cabs can only respond those who have called them.

A half-dozen gypsy cabs recently agreed to take a reporter to Wall Street for about $30, all saying they were licensed to do so. “It’s cool,” said one driver, who identified himself as Mousa.

Bill Singh, a Queens driver, said the bad economy got him picking up rides when he’s not working for a car service. “It’s very slow now. It’s hard to make money,” Singh said.

Commuters using the phony cabs are playing with their safety, as they would be denied no-fault coverage if injured, said Edward McGettigan, president of American Transit Insurance, the largest insurer of yellow taxis. Taxi drivers also must undergo drug testing and criminal background checks.

In 2001, the TLC started conducting undercover stings against street hails, with agents dressing up in business attire to solicit illegal rides. The agency issued more than 4,000 summonses from November 2008 to October 2009, many of them for illegal hails, according to agency figures. Summonses start at $350 and ramp up to include vehicle seizures.

“It’s an ongoing problem, but we believe over time it will get better,” Daus said.

But summons against illegal-street hails by livery cabs actually fell by 61 percent between fiscal year 2005 and 2009, according to city figures.

“They are picking up fares, and they do it without fear,” said David Pollack, editor of the Taxi Insider newspaper, who has gotten letters from passengers ripped off by gypsy cabs.

Daus acknowledged that their 150 agents can’t be everywhere at all times, and said the agency will enforce a “zero tolerance” policy against street hails this week.

"During the holidays, we do step it up," Daus said.


(Emily Ngo contributed to this story)


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