News of taxi debit card scam ‘a black eye’ for industry fighting to survive
by Mike Beggs
It was a like buzz-saw of bad publicity when, in early January, Toronto Police announced the arrest of four men, a woman, and a 16-year-old boy in a taxi debit card scam, resulting in a total of 262 charges between them (including multiple counts of Fraud Over $5,000, Identity Theft, Unauthorized Use Of Credit Or Debit Cards, and Possession Of Property Obtained By Crime).
Dozens of Toronto area residents were victimized by this scam, which Police warn is still ongoing.
“We’re in the millions of loss when you put them all together,” Det. Constable Kristin Thomas told The Globe and Mail. “Police received reports of the alleged frauds throughout 2018, but a few months passed before a pattern began to emerge.”
Police say taxis were picking up passengers in the evening, or early morning and when they’d try to pay with their bank or credit card a Point-Of-Sale machine would display an error message, but record their PIN number. The drivers allegedly took the machine back and pretended to fix the error, while swapping the customer’s card for another one issued by the same bank. It’s alleged they would then drive to the bank and drain the customer’s account, or pass the information on to their accomplices.
Police warn taxi passengers to never leave their cards unattended in POS machines, and to be aware of the taxi number, company name, and the driver ID card.
One of the fraud victims was Amanda Galbraith, principal of Navigator communications/public relations firm (and former director of communications for Mayor John Tory), who told CP 24, “I consider myself pretty savvy. I take taxis all the time and I usually don’t give my card, and when it happened I kind of had this weird feeling, but I thought whatever, it didn’t go through. I gave the guy cash and didn’t think anything of it.
“I woke up the next morning and thousands of dollars had been taken from my account overnight.”
Toronto taxi plate owner Andy Reti says the arrests cast “a bad reflection on the taxi industry” at the worst possible time, with drivers barely scraping by while competing against 72,000-plus Private Transportation Company (PTC) vehicles.
“This is a very important issue,” says veteran driver Behrouz Khamseh. “I have been trying to tell our people the taxi industry needs to protect and promote itself.”
“It’s a tremendous black eye,” agrees owner/operator Gerry Manley. “We’re fighting like hell to improve our industry, to show (people) we’re being modernized. How do we bring ourselves off in a positive manner when you have (behavior) like this?”
But, Manley suggests some blame must be laid at the door of the City for, allegedly, lowering the standard of for-hire drivers – by, “using the taxi industry as a social welfare net” for decades, and by allowing PTC’s to put an unlimited number of cars on the road, while loosening up driver and vehicle standards under Bylaw 546 (2016).
Thomas told the Star none of those arrested were licensed cab drivers, but that they were using taxis registered to licensed brokerages, and that “pretty much” all operating taxi brokerages have been affected. She said the cab companies are working with police to help indentify suspects.
However, Beck Taxi operations manage Kristine Hubbard told the Star her company had been “begging” the Police to let them help with the scam investigations. And, she noted those consumers who were defrauded won’t be out the money for good, with the banks, and insurance companies promising to reimburse their losses.
“So, in the end the only victim is a bank or insurance company, and the reputation of the taxi industry,” she told the Star. “So, is that something that they are going to throw a bunch of resources into? I don’t know. I think we all know the taxi industry has not been met with the best support in terms of reputation.”
Hubbard stressed that all POS machines in her company’s vehicles are prominently branded with the Beck logo, and that drivers must log in with their license and phone numbers in order to start receiving orders.
Toronto taxi business leaders, like Reti and Khamseh, allege the City has had a longstanding hidden agenda to destroy the value of taxi plates and deregulate the industry. And they allege the licensing of PTC’s has proven a valuable tool in achieving this goal – devastating the cab industry, while compromising service and safety standards.
There were several disturbing incidents over the Christmas holidays, alone.
An Uber X driver was among the 22 people charged with Driving Under The Influence (DUI) by York Regional Police – his breath sample registering at five times the legal limit!
Uber management said the driver was not using its’ app at the time of the arrest, shortly after midnight, on Main Street in Stouffville.
Meanwhile, Toronto Police reported that the driver involved in a fatal accident in Yorkville on December 28 was also an Uber driver/partner. A 58-year-old woman was killed in the accident, while her husband suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Uber said the driver was not on the job at the time, but has been removed from its’ app.
Concerned about the number of accidents and crimes involving PTC’s the world over, long-time Toronto industry pundit Rita Smith stresses that high-reliability organizations (like chemical companies) carefully track even the smallest incidents, “because they can predict that an increasing number of disabling injuries will eventually lead to a death.”
She finds it “both daunting and depressing to follow the explosion of non-professional drivers in their own unmarked cars coming into the ground transportation industry in nations around the globe.
“Competition in business is nothing new. It is to be expected at all times, in all industries. However, the detachment from rationality, and disregard for passenger safety being demonstrated by politicians, regulators and police when it comes to (PTC companies) is something completely different,” she alleges, in her online blog. “Decades of logical common sense, and safety concerns are being cavalierly tossed aside in the rush for lower fares and nifty iPhone apps.”
She alleges that, “the line between what is considered safe and unsafe has been blurred past all recognition.”
She alleges passengers are routinely climbing into the personal cars of PTC drivers who are unlicensed and not subject to regulated background checks.
She also points to, “the phenomenon of men who pretend to be PTC drivers, in order to entice girls into their cars.” She cites Gawker’s online report that, “in New York, having strangers climb into the wrong car is becoming commonplace.”
Smith’s concerns seem to be borne out by the U.S. police blotter over the past few months:
In late January, an on-duty Uber driver in Chicago was busted for a DUI at about 4:30 a.m.
An Uber driver in Orlando faces DUI charges after taking his passengers on a perilous ride, speeding and weaving in and out of traffic before crashing into a power pole.
An Uber driver in Boston is accused of sexually assaulting his female passenger, after she was out at a downtown club celebrating her birthday.
And, a May 14, 2018 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that, “In Georgia, drivers for Lyft and Uber have been accused of violent crimes, including a homicide, and sexual and physical assaults. But sometimes the crimes involve people posing as ride-share drivers, making them harder to solve.”