Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Taxi scams

Scam number one: Counterfeit Change. This actually first happened to me while traveling in Argentina.  Until recently, it was the only scam I’ve really watched out for closely. It was Michelle and me again, this time in Buenos Aires for only a single day.  This meant we had to get from the ATM as close to exactly what we thought we were going to spend as possible.  Of course, ATMs dispense large bills, and all you can easily use are small ones.  Still, you’ve got to use the big ones somewhere.  Well, cabs are not the place to do it. 

Our challenge: a small fare and a large bill.  We were clearly tourists, making it even easier for this driver to pull this one on us.   The ride was fine; the driver seemed happy to take our large bill.  But…  when the time came to pay for the next cab, we were devastated when its driver pointed out that we had given him a counterfeit note!  What?  Counterfeit?  Fortunately, the cab driver was nice about it, and pointed out how obviously fake it was.
The real bummer about this one, however, was when it came time to go back to the airport we discovered we were short an amount exactly equal to the non-value of our fake money.  After some begging and pleading and finding some kind bilingual strangers to explain our situation to a cab driver, we found a ride back to the airport from a guy to took the remainder of our Argentine pesos and a few US dollars.  I love nice people.

Scam number two: Manipulated meter.  No matter who you ask, 90% of the time it is more affordable to take a metered taxi (with the meter running) as opposed to working with a flat rate figure the driver gives you that sounds affordable and fair.  Well, that is until you land in a cab with a “manipulated” meter sucking money out of your pocket. 

When Michelle and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a few days ago, we got off our bus mildly disoriented as we had nothing to help find our way but the address and the name of our hostel.  In seconds, one of what seemed like six hundred cab drivers begging attention and some business happily agreed to take us to our destination, an address on the sheet of paper in my hand.  We knew this should take only about 15 minutes.  The driver flipped the meter to “on,” and off we went.   

We didn’t have any local currency, common for the first minutes in a new country.  The driver said he could accept only Vietnamese dong – yes, the local currency is the DONG!  That’s okay, we’ll just have to run by an ATM on the way.  As we were driving through this land of 6 million motor bikes we soon noticed the numbers on the meter were almost a blur as they spun up to a quite large fare.  We did a quick conversion in our heads and agreed this fellow was trying to rob us.  According to our research, a cab ride within Ho Chi Minh City should cost no more than the equivalent of $2 to 4 US dollars.  Look at that meter!  Almost unbelievably, we were quickly approaching a $40 ride!  When we brought this to the attention of the driver (and he simultaneously noticed our copy of the Lonely Planet), he seemed to no longer understand English.  Happily, he did understand the letters A-T-M and stopped right in front of one.  Michelle attempted to obtain some money, but the machine did not work.  So we insisted he just take us to hour hostel, and we would settle the fare when we arrived.  Our driver refused.  He stopped in front of a one-way street and pointed as though the hostel were “down there” somewhere.   
Michelle got out of the cab to try and get a bearing our location and, at the same time, try to find someone to ask about the reality of what we actually owed this guy.  I stayed in the car with the bags. The driver was not too happy that we had become well aware he was trying to rip us off.  Soon, we were both out of the cab with our packs.  That got his attention.  Now he’ll take US dollars, 40 of them.   Yeah right!  I gave him $5 and told him it was all we had.  There is no Vietnamese dong in our pockets and no more dollars.  He whined for more money.    We declined and, finally, just walked away.  We still didn’t know where we were, but at least we had foiled the robbery attempt, and we were free of that whole fiasco.

We started walking and had to ask directions about four times before we finally found the hostel.  The best part?  It was located on a two-way street we could have easily been dropped at, and it was across the street from the bus station!  Amazing!

Its one thing to rip me off, but rip me off AND get me lost?  Come on!

Scam Number three: Dummy switch.  This not-so-clever scam came along during our second day in Ho Chi Minh City.  After a half-day+ tour outside the city, we were dropped off in town to finish our day.  We had really wanted to visit the museum of traditional Vietnamese medicine.  We didn’t have too much time to get there before it was to close so we thought a taxi made good sense. Oops, think again.

Having been scammed by the phony meter the day before, we decided to agree to a price with the driver before leaving.  After a lot of bargaining, we agreed the ride would cost 100,000 VND, about five dollars.  As we got underway, Michelle pulled out a 100,000 VND note so she could hand it to him immediately after we arrived and we could dash off, avoiding any further discussion of the already-negotiated fare. 

At a point where we definitely were not yet at the museum location, it became clear we were nevertheless as far as this gentleman was willing to take us when he stopped the car and pointed “over there.”  Michelle handed him the money.  He took it, tuned his body away for a moment then turned back to us with a 10,000 VND noted in hand insisting we had given him the wrong money and must pay him more.  Michelle was certain she had given him the correct money and that he had switched it. So, now outside and standing on the curb, I said “Okay, lets go,” and I waved her out of the car. The driver mumbled something, pouted a bit, and drove away.  It was proof he was full of bologna, or he would have been really livid at being paid only 10 percent of the agreed-upon fare. 

I can see how this scam would work though.  What better target than a couple of white girls, unfamiliar with the city or the money?  While the guy was unsuccessful in stealing more of our money, we still ended up the losers in the situation.  The ride had ended several kilometers short of where we wanted to go and, as a result, never did find the medical museum.

The good news?  The cab driver that took us back to our hostel used the meter honestly -- $3 for a 10-minute ride in traffic -- and dropped us directly in front of our destination.

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