New York City taxis are being equipped with a warning system that lets passengers know the driver has activated a higher rate.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission announced the changes Wednesday after recently discovering thousands of drivers illegally charging the wrong rate. Cabbies were secretly using a rate designated for trips to the suburbs. It is double the city-limits rate.
The TLC said it found at least 1.8 million riders were illegally charged over the past two years.
Officials say more than 5,100 taxicabs now have the warning on the screen in the backseat. The rest of the 13,200-vehicle fleet will get it over the next several days.
The warning also tells passengers to report their driver if the higher rate has been activated inside city limits. A local anesthesiologist is credited with setting off the investigation that uncovered the shocking $8 million taxi scam.
On his early morning ride back home from NYU Medical Center last August, Dr. Mitchell Lee became suspicious when the usual $5 fare jumped up to $7. Because he would routinely take the same ride home, the fare never fluctuated.
But on this particular night, something was off.
“It was obvious when the meter was going fast," Lee told the New York Post. "I asked the driver why the meter was going faster than normal, if there was breakage."
Lee’s driver, Wasim Khalid Cheema, challenged him at first, but then told him to pay what he normally does.
Instead, Lee paid the full $7 fare with a credit card and filed a complaint online with the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
The TLC investigation revealed that about three-fourths of all the city’s taxi drivers, more than 35,000 cabbies, had swindled riders out of $8.3 million.
Cheema himself cheated 574 riders in a single month, and made about $40,000 more than the average driver in six months. In order to raise the fares, he changed his meter from Rate 1 to Rate 4, the code used in Nassau and Westchester counties.
"New Yorkers are smarter than cabbies think," Lee said.