NEW YORK – Thousands of tourists and residents who took New York City's iconic yellow taxis were quietly ripped off by drivers who frequently manipulated their meters to double the fare rate, officials said Wednesday as 59 drivers were arrested.
Six drivers reeled in more than $10,000 apiece by repeatedly bumping their meters up to a higher suburban rate when they actually were in the city, the Manhattan district attorney's office said. One driver overcharged than 5,100 times between November 2008 and June 2010, prosecutors said.
Unsuspecting passengers overpaid an average of about $5, officials have said. But they said the overcharges added up to a sprawling scam among the cabs that are part of fast-paced life in New York and are seen fondly as symbols of the nation's largest city.
The criminal cases represent the most serious offenders among thousands of drivers believed to have deployed the fare trick before the city took steps to stop it this spring, officials said.
"With the imperceptible tap of a button, taxi riders went from trusting customers to the unwitting targets of a widespread con operation," District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance said.
Still, officials stressed that the allegations involve a fraction of the city's roughly 48,000 yellow-cab drivers — and that their roughly 13,000 taxis are now equipped with warning systems that alert passengers if the higher rate is being charged.
Some passengers said they hoped the prosecutions would further deter such fraud. Others wondered whether they might, unknowingly, have been victims of the suburban-fare scam.
"It might've happened, and I might not have known about it," lawyer Robert Davis, visiting from Washington, D.C., mused Wednesday as he waited for a taxi outside Pennsylvania Station. "Suspicion only gets you so far."
Cabbies, meanwhile, worried that the arrests would taint them.
"Usually, we're known to be honest people. When something like this happens, then everyone's in trouble," said Mamadi Keita, 46, a taxi driver since 1997.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy group, criticized the criminal cases, derived from data collected through taxi technology that includes GPS systems.
"How can data from GPS alone be used to take away a person's freedom?" alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai said.
The investigation began after a passenger complained to the city about a fare that seemed to go up too fast last July.
The city Taxi & Limousine Commission concluded in May that almost 22,000 cabbies had improperly charged the double rate, which is supposed to apply only when taxis cross into suburban Westchester or Nassau counties. Passengers were overcharged 286,000 times, for a total of about $1.1 million, the TLC said.
Drivers said some seeming overcharges were actually honest mistakes. Taxi Commissioner David Yassky said in May that cabbies who overcharged once or twice would not be punished.
Wednesday marked the most serious potential punishment so far: arrests on felony charges of scheming to defraud against 45 drivers, and misdemeanor petty larceny cases against another 14.
The drivers stole a total of more than $235,000 during about 77,000 taxi trips, Vance said. Each is accused of overcharging at least 300 times.
Arraignments were still in progress Wednesday night.
One driver, Mfamara Camara, overcharged a total of about $15,500 through nearly 4,800 fares, prosecutors said. He hadn't been arraigned yet, and his lawyer's name wasn't immediately available.
Another, Santiago Rossi, pleaded not guilty to charges of upping the fare 5,127 times to bilk about $11,000. He told investigators he was trying to make some extra cash, assistant district attorney James Meadows said.
Rossi's lawyer, Cynthia D. Fisher, said the allegations were misguided.
"The technology is flawed, their computations are flawed and their theory is flawed," she said.
The city has also pursued fines or license revocations against about 2,000 cabbies, Yassky said. So far, 161 have lost their licenses, and another 124 have been assessed fines from $1,000 to $10,000, he said.
While the individual losses may be small, the rip-off allegations struck a nerve with riders, city Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn noted.
"A trip in a yellow taxicab is a quintessential New York experience for visitors to the city and a needed means of transportation for many New Yorkers," she said.
And, she added: "Most people view the rates as high enough."
Associated Press writer Samantha Gross contributed to this report.