Busted! Faux cabbies beware 

Police sting operations on illegally operated taxis and limousines are netting at least 10 busts per weekend, providing a touch of relief to the legitimate cab industry that’s left ailing as a result of the imposters.

Undercover officers have been working predominately in nightclub- and restaurant-heavy areas such as SoMa, Fisherman’s Wharf and The Embarcadero to cite limos that solicit fares without a legal medallion, the permit regulating all San Francisco cabs.

Police Cmdr. John Murphy, who recently took over security for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — which oversees taxis — said the undercover stings resulted in dozens of citations in January. A report on the crackdown is expected by next week. Illegal cab drivers can be fined up to $5,000 for driving without a medallion.

A report presented to the Taxi Commission last year said 131 drivers in 2008 were cited, a mere dent in what is perceived to be hundreds of illegal taxis on streets trolling for passengers who are either ignorant of the laws or unable to find a legitimate cab.

The Police Department’s taxi detail, once fully staffed with sworn police officers, is only staffed by civilians who handle administrative duties. The latest stings are instead carried out by three to five rotating officers from the traffic division, according to police spokeswoman Lt. Lyn Tomioka.

The illegal cabs are known to endanger passengers and rip them off, sometimes charging higher fees than what’s allowed for licensed cabbies. Imposter drivers, unlike those who are certified by The City, don’t have to undergo criminal background checks and officials don’t inspect their vehicles for safety hazards.

Illegal taxis also are taking business from The City’s legitimate drivers. Limousines are only supposed to operate by scheduled appointments and are prohibited from picking up riders off the street.

Other cabs are painted yellow and disguised as legitimate taxis, but are unlicensed. One such company has a phone number that is one digit off Yellow Cab’s customer service line. Police have cited the company at least three times this year, according to Murphy.

Francis Gonzales, a 14-year veteran cabbie who has a medallion but shares it with Yellow Cab in a co-op agreement, was outside the Palace Hotel on Tuesday waiting for a fare. He pointed about 50 yards ahead of his taxi to where limos pull up to swipe away his business.

Gonzales, like other cab drivers interviewed, said he hasn’t noticed much of a crackdown on so-called pirate cabs. But he does welcome the effort.

“It’s killing our business,” Gonzales said.

How to spot a legitimate cab

•Side and rear of cab should say San Francisco taxicab
•Small metal license plate should be visible on dashboard in front of windshield
•Driver’s ID should be visible from back seat

About limousines
•Limousine rides must be prearranged usually by phone or in writing
•Look for a TCP number on the front and rear bumpers of the vehicle
•Ask for driver’s business card and a receipt before departing
•Limo drivers are forbidden from soliciting customers without prior reservations

Facing the music

$100 Criminal penalty for operating an illegal cab

$2,500 Current administrative fine by SFMTA

$5,000 Maximum fine under California law given to illegal cabs

33 Number of illegal taxi companies in San Francisco in a 2009 report

Source: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency


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