Travel

The Biggest Uber, Lyft, and Taxi Scams -- and How to Avoid Them

Nothing starts a vacation like arriving in a new place, jumping in a car, and immediately getting ripped off. WELCOME TO OUR CITY, SUCKER! As dastardly as taxi scams are, they’re one of the most common ways people get swindled, and with the advent of Uber and Lyft, a whole load of new tricks have arisen in the past few years.

Whether you’re a tourist traveling abroad or just an innocent local taking a car around your own patch, here are the scams to watch out for -- and how to defuse them.

The straight-up cash grab

While traveling over a toll road, bridge, or any other public thoroughfare that charges a fee, the driver tells you to pony up some cash to cover the cost. Or demands cash for an airport fee. Or anything, really.

How to avoid it: The cool thing about apps is that EVERYTHING is included in the fare, so a driver should never ask for cash. Explain this to your driver, in a calm, polite and don’t-fuck-with-me kind of way. If he asks for a credit card, don’t give him that either, and when the trip ends, show him the breakdown of the fare on your app.

The never-ending meter

A ride-share drops you off, but doesn’t end the trip. Your ride continues all the way back to the driver’s house 45 miles away. Your $12 trip now costs $87.

How to avoid it: Don’t leave the ride until the trip is ended on your app. If the driver hasn’t ended it, politely ask her to.

The unrequested upgrade

You order an UberX for you and a couple of friends. The car shows up and it’s a perfectly nice Honda Civic that gets you where you want to go. The next day you get a notification from Uber that due to the number of people in your party, your ride was upgraded to an UberXL, and your fare is almost doubled.

How to avoid it: You CAN be charged more if your party (and your luggage in some cases) exceeds the capacity of the vehicle class. This prevents six people with 20 suitcases from ordering a compact car and thinking it’s cool. So if you did that, don’t complain. Some crooked drivers abuse this, though. If it happens to you, protest the upgrade and explain the situation to the company. If during the ride you think you might be at risk, take photos inside the car which you can use to prove your point later, if it comes to that.

The re-request

You get in the car and the driver mumbles something like “the app messed up,” and asks you to re-request the ride. Magically, the fare has gone up 35%, because surge pricing has just come into effect. The app did not mess up.

How to avoid it: Never, EVER, re-request a ride without first going into your app to see if the app really did “mess up.” Over 99% of the time, it didn’t, and since the driver didn’t want to cancel (and lose money), he’s asking you to do it. Simply say “it seems to be working fine on my app,” and ask to see his phone. If you want to be extra diligent, screenshot your first fare estimate and send it to the ride-share company -- they will adjust the fare.

uber app
Leon Neal/Getty Images News

The game of cancellation chicken

This typically happens around airports, where drivers will sit in the cell phone area or short-term parking with their app on. You call a ride and the car looks like it’s RIGHT THERE, but it doesn’t move. Five minutes later, it’s still there, so you call to see what’s up, and nobody answers. Then you get a text saying “I’ll be there in three minutes!” Three minutes later, no car. You cancel, and get assessed a $5 fee. The driver repeats the process all day while listening to soccer.

How to avoid it: Ride-share services will almost always give you a $5 credit if you protest a cancellation, but it’s still aggravating to have to request another ride. Cancellation fees apply in two minutes now, instead of five, so if you see a car hasn’t moved within the first minute after you ordered it, give the driver a call. If he doesn’t pick up, cancel. Hopefully you get in under the wire. Or at least save yourself some time.

The mysterious meter "malfunction"

The taxi you get into has a meter that either isn’t on or isn’t on display. Or, in some cases, is hidden in the glove box and shows some magical, made up number when you get to your destination. The driver demands a random amount, which is probably more than it would have cost if the meter was on.

How to avoid it: Never, EVER get in a cab without a meter. Pretty simple, but you’d be surprised how many people when traveling to foreign countries think stuff like “They must just not use meters in Brazil. How colorful!” Also, do a little research into how much rides cost wherever you’re going, and if you’re asked for more, give them the rate you understand to be fair. If there’s a problem, tell them to call the police -- 100% of the time, they won’t.

The phantom mess

Somehow your $20 ride-share home late Saturday night turned into $170, thanks to a unilaterally assessed “cleaning fee,” even though the only mess you left was a couple of McDonald’s French fries.

How to avoid it: Drivers must provide photographic evidence that you trashed their car, so it’s a hard thing to fake. But some drivers aren’t above putting plastic vomit (yep, you can buy that stuff) on their seats for a quick 150 bucks. The only way to fully protect yourself is to take pictures of the inside of the car every time you leave, and always check your fares and credit card immediately so you can protest in a timely manner.

The fake "jitney"

A driver comes up to you at baggage claim and says “You need an Uber?” Seeing a taxi line of 200 people and feeling that 15-degree wind chill, you say sure. He proceeds to charge you $75 for a ride into the city center, when it should only cost $35. You might think this is an obvious sucker move and simple to avoid, but last year Uber estimated this happened 2,300 times EVERY WEEK on trips from LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK alone.

How to avoid it: Nowhere on Earth do ride-share services operate by soliciting rides in baggage claim. Fake airport drivers have been around for years, but now they have a brand name (and sometimes even a nifty window decal) to make them seem more legit. They’re still con artists. Only get in a car from the airport taxi stand, or a ride-share you call to the designated area.

The Lyftjack

Fake drivers will roam the streets looking for people who look like they’re waiting for a car (standing on street corners, staring at their phones, then back at the street, then back at their phones, then squinting at license plates). They’ll pull up and ask if you’re waiting for a ride, hoping you get in. If you ask why the make and model of the car don’t match up to what’s on your app, they’ll claim “the system messed up.” Then they’ll ask if you can just pay in cash or credit once you get to your destination.

How to avoid it: The app has the make, model, and license plate of your assigned ride. If it doesn’t match, don’t get in. As a double precaution, ask the driver’s name or get them to tell you your name, which they won’t know if they’re an imposter.

The broken credit card machine

In the US, nearly every taxi is equipped to take credit cards. Drivers hate them, of course, because they lose 3% or so on every ride. Sometimes they try telling you “the machine is offline/broken,” and offer to take you to an ATM so you can pay cash. And they’ll usually leave the meter on the whole time you’re on the diverted route, too. BONUS SCAM: They’ll leave the meter on while they boot up the mysteriously-now-working credit card machine, adding wait time to your fare.

How to avoid it: When the ride starts, politely inform the taxi driver you’ll be paying with a credit card. It avoids a lot of awkwardness at the end, and quashes any scamming. Insist the meter be turned off the minute you reach your destination, so you don’t get charged wait time while the machine boots up. And if the driver is really insistent on you paying cash, don’t let the meter run while you find an ATM.

The scenic route

A taxi picks you up at the airport and takes you on a 7-mile ride to your hotel, which is called “Days Inn - Airport.” It has a sweeping view of the control tower, and you wonder why it took half an hour to get there.

How to avoid it: You’d think this scam would be obsolete in the era of GPS and maps applications. But then you’d underestimate the nerve of some cab drivers. Even if you pull out your phone and say “Hey! Why are you taking me miles out of the way,” they’ll tell you something about avoiding traffic or knowing “the side streets.” Your best bet is to demand they take the route your app tells you to take, and if there is in fact traffic, well that’s on you, chief.

The ditch

On a particularly busy night (New Year’s, Halloween, right after the Super Bowl) you call a ride-share early to avoid surge pricing. Your ride pulls up, looks at you, then drives right by and you get a notification saying the ride has been canceled. You order a new ride, and it now costs three times as much.

How to avoid it: Sadly, there’s no way to avoid getting ditched. If your driver is an opportunistic asshole, well, they’ll get found out eventually. To help bring them down, you can take down their info and report them to the service -- if the complaints against them stack up, sooner or later they'll get fired. You, on the other hand, may as well go back inside and keep drinking until prices get back to normal.

The foreign currency fakeout

Knowing full well you can’t tell a 50,000 Boliviano note from a 500,000 Boliviano note, your taxi driver claims that you handed him a smaller bill than you actually did. Then he gives you considerably less change than you deserve, or asks for more money.

How to avoid it: Look at the bills carefully before you hand them over and say out loud “I’m handing you 500,000 Bolivianos. Please give me 100,000 Bolivianos in change.” If you don’t speak the language, type out the number on your phone and make sure the driver understands that you know how much you’re handing him, and how much you want back.

The account theft

Someone buys your login info off the dark web and starts taking rides on your virtual dime.

How to avoid it: Ride-share account info isn’t exactly protected like nuclear codes, and while Uber and Lyft do their best to prevent data breaches, it can happen. Check your account regularly to make sure your ride history lines up with the journeys you’ve taken -- if there’s any discrepancy, report it immediately. Just make sure it’s a ride you didn’t take, and not just one you don’t remember.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who has fallen for all of these at least twice. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.