Please, Almaty, lower the boom on the airport taxi scammers

31 мая 2011, 10:19

I have a request for Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yessimov, whose many duties include trying to promote Kazakhstan’s biggest city as a tourist-friendly and business-traveler-friendly destination.

Mr. Mayor, please stop the taxi scammers who prey on foreigners arriving at Almaty International Airport. They are giving Almaty and Kazakhstan a black eye.

I recently took a late-night flight from Astana to Almaty. I was tired, and decided to grab the first ride I could to the city-center apartment a friend had reserved for me.

I grabbed my check-in bag from the luggage carousel and headed for the baggage-area exit. About five meters from the exit, blocking my path, were two women in their early 20s yelling “taxi” and waving signs that said the same.

I thought it strange that they were on the baggage-carousel side of the exit door instead of on the side where relatives and friends waited for arriving passengers. But I didn’t linger on the thought.

The women were attractive. I figured they had charmed their way past airport security so they could intercept ride seekers before rival taxi services could get to them.

Their location inside the baggage area should have been red flag Number 1 for me.

When I told them I needed a taxi, they motioned me to a man in a black T-shirt who took me out a side door instead of the main exit. Red flag Number 2.

I learned long ago in Kazakhstan – and many other countries – to make clear to the driver the price I’m willing to pay before entering a cab.

 I told the driver three times on the way to his car: “Adeen pyat null null” – as in 1,500 tenge.

He said nothing the first and second times I spoke, then finally responded with “OK.” Red flag Number 3.

I noticed no taxi signs on the sides or top of his older but well-maintained Mercedes. Red flag Number 4.

Many cabbies are warm and friendly. This guy chatted me up, but there was no warmth in it. It looked and felt like an acting job from someone who was calculating. Red flag Number 5.

When we got to the corner of Gogol Street where I’d asked him to drop me off, I asked for a receipt, and he told me: “Ten thousand tenge.”

That was 6 ½ times the agreed-on price, or $63 for a $10 ride.

I told him no way – that he had agreed to 1,500.

“Mister,” he said, “this is V.I.P. taxi.”

“I wasn’t told that,” I said. “You agreed to 1,500 tenge.”

“No,” he said. “Never agreed.”

I started yelling at him. I was twice his size, but he never flinched.

“OK, 5,000 tenge,” he said.

“Over my dead body,” I screamed, getting out of the car. “Open the trunk!” I yelled. That was where my two bags and laptop computer were.

 Actually, the “dead body” line wasn’t exactly what I said, but this is a blog that women and children might read, so I decided to clean up my actual language.

“No, mister,” he replied to my demand that he open the trunk. “Five thousand tenge.”

At that point, I began screaming non-stop at him. I was not going to let him cheat me like some rube from Muncie, Indiana, no matter what it took.

He continued to show no emotion at the verbal abuse I was heaping on him. If he had been a newcomer to scamming, he would have become rattled by my size and the genuine anger I was displaying. Every other cabbie who had tried to cheat me bigtime in other countries had become terrified when I challenged them the way I was doing with this guy.

No, this guy was all cool, which said to me he had been scamming foreigners at Almaty International Airport for a long time. He had become so used to the bluster of those who objected to his thievery that he long since shrugged it off as a cost of doing business.

I continued to yell at him to open the trunk and gave me my bags, and he continued to refuse.

So I screamed that I would call the police. He told me to go ahead. In fact, he said, he would call them himself -- and he put his mobile to his ear.

He was so cocksure of himself that I knew if someone arrived -- either in a police uniform or in plainclothes but flashing a badge -- it would be a friend of his. The scammer accomplice would tell me that I was the one at fault and that I would have to pay the 10,000 tenge that the aggrieved cabbie had first demanded.

I was bellowing like a bull being led to a castrating station when my friend Zhenya arrived. She had agreed to meet me with the key to the apartment she had reserved for me.

Zhenya asked what was going on. The driver had a story ready. He blamed me for the “miscommunication” about the price. He told Zhenya that when he heard me say “Adeen pyat null null,” he thought I was saying – because my Russian was so bad --  that the address was “150” Gogol.

It was an outrageous lie, but a clever one. Since the guy appeared to have the brainpower of an oak stump, it was obvious he had not made up the lie on the spot but had used it many times before.

Zhenya would have none of it. She asked the driver to give her the phone number of his dispatcher. He reluctantly gave her a number. The dispatcher – if that’s who she was -- told Zhenya the driver would accept 1,500 tenge.

I gave him the money, and he opened the trunk and handed over my bags.

I was so steamed about his nonchalance that I continued to heap verbal abuse on him until he was quite aways down the road. He never raised an eyebrow. I have never seen a taxi scammer so brazen.

I am writing about this, Mr. Mayor, to ask you to do something to prevent foreigners arriving at Almaty International from going through what I did.    

I was lucky I had a Russian-speaking friend waiting at the place where my ride ended. Many foreigners won’t have that luxury, and – I fear – will have no choice but to pay a scammer’s extortion demand.

Here are some things I would suggest the city do to stop this, Mr. Mayor:

First, order airport administrators to ban taxi-ride hawkers from the baggage-carousel area. Their presence is an airport-security violation anyway. The fact that they are there suggests that the scammers are paying off someone at the airport – also an embarrassment to the city.

Second, please do what Astana has done to stop taxi scamming: Require cabs to be clearly marked as cabs and to have meters that show riders what they’re paying.

Third, ban all cars that aren’t taxis from picking up paying passengers at the airport. It wouldn’t be that much of a hardship for unlicensed taxi drivers. They would still be able to stop along a curb in Almaty to pick up those who hold out their hands for a ride.

The airport is where the scammers make their money, not the streets of Almaty. Preventing unlicensed taxi drivers from operating at the airport will keep hundreds of foreigners a year from having to go through such a gut-wrenching altercation with a taxi scammer that their first purchase in Almaty is stomach medicine.

And that, in turn, will mean that the vast majority of foreigners will have only pleasant memories of Almaty – and want to return.     

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