MIAMI ó When Carol and Eugene Barrington were ushered into a yellow cab from the official taxi queue at Miami International Airport on Sept. 13, 2017, they werenít paying attention to the license number or driverís name. Why would they? They were just happy to be on vacation.
"We were tourists being put in a cab to our hotel. We didnít know any better," said Mrs. Barrington. For about 45 minutes, the couple relaxed in the back of the taxi, not realizing that they would be charged more than $35 per mile for that trip, or about $17 per minute. (The standard rate is $2.40 a mile, with up to $0.40 per minute of wait time.)
They had already had a streak of bad luck ó Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on their Houston home, and then Irma blew through South Florida three days before their planned Miami vacation. But in the end, their cruise on the Celebrity Equinox was not canceled, and they had a day to explore Miami before setting sail. It seemed their luck was improving.
It wasnít until after their vacation that Barrington checked her credit card statement and noticed a†$777.44 charge†from Sept. 13. It was the taxi ride ó fare, tip, and sales tax ó between the Miami airport and the Crowne Plaza in Hallandale Beach, a ride that should have cost around $70 and included no sales tax.
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Though unique in scale, their story mirrors the 114 other passenger overcharge complaints filed against taxi drivers in Miami-Dade County between Jan. 1, 2017, and last week. Many are disputed, seemingly small amounts ó $5, $10, $15, but a few claimed that drivers had overcharged the customer by larger amounts, sometimes more than $100, either by double charging ó saying the credit card did not go through and charging cash as well ó or simply by refusing to turn on the meter and demanding cash. Only nine complaints resulted in a refund, with more than $600 being returned. But most frequently, the cases were closed because of "insufficient information."
Itís not easy to prove an overcharge. Without a cab number or at least a company name, Luis Espinoza, from the Department of Transportation and Public Works, said itís difficult to get a refund for lack of proof. "If she submits the request ó and we encourage her to do so ó we would look into it. But I donít know what the outcome would be," Espinoza said about the Barringtonsí case.
There are 2,121 licensed taxis in Miami-Dade County, and twice as many drivers. At least 38 companies provide service in nearly indistinguishable yellow sedans, according to the county. Six of them have "Yellow" as part of their name. If you donít get the number when you enter the cab, itís difficult to find the cab again.
"We were stupidly oblivious to be honest with you," Barrington said. She said they should have paid more attention to the cabís details at the time. Though they say they are world travelers, she and her husband still would have never expected what happened to them. "In our defense weíve never run across this before. Weíve traveled all over the world."
When the taxi driver missed the obvious exit, the Barringtons began to feel something might be off. By the time they were slowly driving through residential streets with the driver saying their high-profile hotel was "around here someplace," Barrington said she felt they were potentially being "taken for a ride." She used her cellphoneís GPS to guide the driver the rest of the way to the hotel. Still, she wasnít very worried.
"I just figured she was a substitute driver or something," Barrington said. "You guys had just been through a hurricane. I didnít expect things to run like clockwork." In the end, they were lost only for a few minutes, and when Barrington looked at the meter as she exited the cab, she said it indicated something around $70 ó expensive, but about what sheíd expected.
When her husband went to swipe his card, however, there was no card reader in the back of the cab. Not having one is illegal. Under the Ambassador Cabs program, any taxi that services the Miami airport must have a functional credit card processing system available in the back seat, provided by one of two companies ó Verifone or Creative Mobile Technologies ó that list tips, fares, tolls and fees separately. The driver is not supposed to touch the passengerís credit card. But the Barringtons didnít know that, so they followed the driverís instructions.
They said the driver took their card and swiped it through a little white square attached to her cellphone. Eugene Barrington, who had never seen this before, was confused. The screen on the phone was so dark he said he couldnít see the amount he was being charged. But the couple had no reason to think that the charge was anything other than what they saw on the meter. Mr. Barrington said he added $7 for a tip and signed. Then he asked for a receipt ó also a passengerís legal right in Miami. "Oh, I donít know how to do that," his wife remembers the driver saying as the woman hopped back in the cab and drove off.
The device that the driver used to charge the Barringtons is produced by a company called Square Inc. The Square allows anyone who signs up for the app to charge credit cards for products and services via their phone. Though the company does an identity verification on each new vendor, Square Inc. does not require vendors to provide official business registration numbers, nor does it arbitrate disputed claims ó only credit card companies can do that. Itís illegal for taxis to use Squares in Miami, and using one can result in a $210 fine.
"Some drivers want to cut a little bit of the time and the work and make some extra money some way, some how," said Robert Rios, president of Super Yellow Cab, about the use of Squares by drivers trying to avoid splitting the fares with the company. He thinks scams and overcharging make all taxi drivers look bad, and cause tourists to choose other ride services like Uber or Lyft.
"Itís a shame. Because thatís our bread and butter, tourism," he said.
It seemed that the $777.44 scam was a perfect crime ó no GPS tracking of the vehicle because there was no credit card machine, cab number and knowledge of the overcharge until it was too late.
"Thatís how they get away with it," Espinoza said. The county government performs random checks to make sure that cabs are using the correct systems, and even sends undercover passengers to try to identify taxis that donít follow the rules. But scammers continue to slip through the cracks. "We know that thatís happening and that it does happen. And thatís why we are trying to catch them," he said.
When they first saw the outrageous charge on their card, the Barringtons thought it was an innocent mistake. Perhaps the driver accidentally added an extra "7" they thought. So the Barringtons contacted CapitalOne.
But, on Nov. 13, 2017, CapitalOne notified the Barringtons that their driver claimed the charge was valid and not a mistake, sticking the Barringtons with the bill. The driverís "proof" consisted of two pages of receipts and a map of Hollywood Beach, provided by a vendor called "Yellow." The driverís name does not appear anywhere on the receipts.
There is no company "Yellow" registered to do business in Florida. But according to the receipt, "Yellow" was located in one half of a Section 8 duplex in Liberty City. The Miami Herald discovered that one half of the duplex was rented to a woman named Rochelle. Rochelleís daughter, Judith, who drove a yellow cab, was living with her in September, but has since returned to Haiti with severe health problems, Rochelle said.
Rochelle called her daughter over the weekend and said Judith confessed to the overcharge. "She said it was an accident and someone must have pressed the wrong button," Rochelle said. She did not know what specific cab company her daughter worked for at the time, and said she was unaware of the issue until the Herald brought it to her attention.
Although the Barringtonsí is the highest overcharge that the Miami Herald saw documented in 2017, there are other strikingly similar examples. Consider Gita Bararsani, who took a cab from the airport to her hotel, where she said she was given a receipt for $35.60 on Jan. 17, 2017. It wasnít until she checked her credit card statement later, as she does each month, that she realized she was actually charged $78. She sent a letter with the receipt and credit card statement to the county in an official complaint, but could not come up with the cab number either.
An official receipt from any taxi in Miami-Dade should identify the taxi company, the specific cab and its driver by license numbers. However, when she looked at her receipt again, Bararsani said it didnít look right and could have been phony, given that even the date on it was wrong.
"Maybe next time I go out of town I should get the cab number. But when you are on vacation, I donít know, you just get off of the plane and donít have time," Bararsani said. Still, she thought it was important for the county to know what happened. "I donít want this to happen to other people. I know a lot of senior citizens live in Miami. I know they do this a lot to senior citizens."
The county received Bararsaniís letter. But Bararsani said it never followed up with her. The case was closed for insufficient information.
Contact Sarah Blaskey at [email protected]