NEW YORK - Distraction and haste — two feelings that often accompany trips to the airport — made me the unwilling victim of a fake Uber scam. Unfortunately, they're all too common.
Due to a family emergency, last week I booked a last-minute trip to New York from my home in central North Carolina. I’d gotten a call the day before from the hospice caseworker attending my mother, who is suffering from lung cancer. And she’d told me simply: “Time is of the essence.”
I booked an early flight to LaGuardia and made a reservation on the Hampton Jitney, a bus, to hightail it out to eastern Long Island, 85 miles from the airport. As fate would have it the plane was late, which meant I’d miss the bus. The next one with an empty seat wasn’t until late that afternoon and there was no train until 9 pm. A rental car at LaGuardia would cost more than $200 for two days, plus gas, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to drive in my current state.
So I decided to book an Uber. The estimated fare: $180.
In my frenzied daze I exited the terminal and began to look for my car—a Toyota Venza, according to the Uber app—and driver, who’d just messaged me, “Arriving now.” It’s always a challenge at busy airports like LaGuardia to actually locate your car, so I was surprised and relieved to spot a young man in a suit holding a clipboard with the Uber logo. Before I could even walk over to him, he approached me. “How great is this!” I thought to myself. “Uber is not just an app anymore, but a real-life service.”
Not so fast. As it turns out, I had just walked straight into a scam, as do more than two thousand each week at La Guardia and nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to Uber’s New York general manager, Josh Mohrer.
“It’s really shocking, and it’s criminal activity,” Mohrer said, calling the epidemic of “illegal driver solicitations” a “very organized and well-honed scam.” To buttress his point, Mohrer emailed me a copy of a letter that he had sent to Pat Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, detailing the volume of scams based on a 15-day investigation by its staffers. The letter effectively laid the problem at the feet of the Port Authority for “ineffective enforcement.” Mohrer says he’s received no response from Foye since he sent the letter on June 30.
The scams Mohrer wrote about included the one that tripped me up: When the phony dispatcher asked me where I was going, I gave him the address and told him I’d been quoted a fare of $180 by the Uber app. He took my iPhone and verified it. “Ah, I see you already ordered a car,” he said. “I’ll upgrade you to an Escalade” – pointing to a black behemoth sitting curbside — “for the same fare.” After the late flight and missed bus, I was glad for that small bit of good fortune.
That’s when the dispatcher waved my driver over to me — Mel of Mel’s Luxury Service, as I later found out. With some skepticism, I asked him, “You are Uber, right?” to which he said “yes.” “You know the fare, right?” He repeated “$180” back to me. Knowing the Uber rules, I had one last question: “Did I need to cancel the car I had ordered?” No problem, said the “dispatcher,” who took my phone and hit the “cancel” button himself.
Ninety minutes later I arrived at my mom’s house. The ride had been smooth and comfortable, and I had no complaints with Mel’s driving.
I thanked him and started to get out of the Escalade, knowing Uber would automatically charge my credit card. But Mel stopped me and said he needed to swipe my card. That puzzled me, but he insisted. I should have realized something was not right, but all I could think was “time is of the essence,” so I handed over my MasterCard.
I rushed into the house — and sat down on the bed next to my mom. She was as glad to see me as I was her.
It wasn’t until later that evening, as I checked my email, that I had the Eureka moment. I’d been taken. Mel had emailed me a receipt – not from Uber, but from his Mel’s Luxury Service. He’d added a 10% tax, bringing the total to $198. I was furious. But also lucky. Other victims reported that their rogue drivers have demanded higher fares mid-trip – or have been literally taken for a ride all over New York City.
I filed a complaint with the Port Authority, the agency that oversees major transportation hubs in New York, and received an auto-response acknowledging it.
A week later I’ve received no follow-up to my complaint. Uber’s Mohrer says he’s received no response to his letter from executive director Foye, and that’s after more than three months. I called the Port Authority myself and talked with spokesperson Joe Pentangelo, and I asked how seriously the Port Authority was taking the Uber scams. In response he sent me a press release titled:
“PORT AUTHORITY ANNOUNCES MAJOR CRACKDOWN ON UNLICENSED AIRPORT HUSTLERS AT NEW YORK CITY AIRPORTS”
A closer reading told me the release was dated November 24, 2009, a year and a half before Uber service started in New York. It only takes a quick search to recall how contentious Uber’s entry was into that market in 2011 when the company battled the city’s yellow cabs to gain its foothold. Five years later Uber has made its peace with its many adversaries—more or less—and operates in what’s called the “for hire” space, which means the company is allowed to pickup passengers at New York area airports that are pre-arranged.
The Port Authority had made 548 arrests so far in 2016 for “solicitation,” which includes all taxis and limousines, not just Uber. That compares to more than two thousand illegal Uber scams occurring each week, according to general manager Mohrer.
I know, especially as a native New Yorker, that I should have been more on guard and not been such an easy mark. Blame it on my emotional state, maybe, but many people arriving at airports are distracted, confused, or caught up in their own personal emergencies, making them vulnerable to scams like these.
Still, here’s what you can do to protect yourself:
· Be sure the make and model of the car match what you booked; don’t rely on an Uber logo, which may not be legitimate.
· Double check the license plate on the car you’re entering to be sure it’s same as the one displayed on your app.
· When you get in the car, the driver should ask for your name and you should also confirm his or her name, which is shown in the app.
· Remember that Uber has no human dispatchers. If someone approaches you at the airport (or anywhere) claiming to be Uber, tell them you’ve already booked your ride. Or just say “no,” and keep walking.
Cindy Adams, the famous New York gossip columnist, is perhaps best known for her closing line, “Only in New York, kids, only in New York.” While these Uber scams have only been documented in the Big Apple to date, make no mistake, what happens there won’t stay there. You’ve been warned.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.
USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about living in the Digital Age. Submit your question to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow Steven on Twitter: @StevenPetrow. Or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow.