Special Report: Illegal cabs causing problems in SWFL

CREATED Nov 11, 2013

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LEE COUNTY - At some point, everybody needs a ride. And taxis are there to provide that service. But did you know there are unregulated rogue drivers out there offering rides for money against the law?

Legitimate taxi drivers -- who secure a permit from the city or county -- say not only could you be putting your self in danger, but you could also get taken for a ride.

"A lot of people out of work think it's OK to jump in their car and call it a taxi cab. It doesn't work like that," one legitimate driver tells us, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The cabbie goes on to tell us about one fare who came running to him after being approached by a suspicious driver in downtown Fort Myers.

"And they started telling me this guy was telling 'em he was a taxi cab. And he had no markings, no phone number. He wanted to give 'em a ride and charge 'em 40 bucks for a 20 dollar fare."

The problem is so big, this group of cab company owners and drivers contacted 4 In Your Corner for help. They say rogue drivers are running rampant.

"It's a big problem. There's a lot of people doing this. We're talking 50 or 60, really, it's a lot of people. And they're taking all the business away," says Rafael Lopez, who mainly works the Palm Beach Boulevard corridor in Fort Myers and unicorporated Lee County.

"Weekdays are real bad, sometimes you can't even make 50 dollars the whole day. I'm not talking about an 8 hour shift, I'm talking about all day," Lopez goes on to say.

So 4 In Your Corner's Liza Fernandez went undercover.

Hector, another legit driver, takes her to Palm Beach Boulevard, where you can find lots of people picking up and dropping off shoppers.

At a Tice strip mall, our cameras wait and wait and wait.

A green van pulls up, we're told is an illegal taxi, and drops off a woman. We ask the driver in Spanish if he's a cabbie.

"Hola, usted es un taximestrista?" Liza asks.

He says, no, the woman is his friend.

Farther down the road, Liza hangs out outside a laundromat and tries to hitch a ride. Before long a red van pulls up with 3 people inside.

"Hola," she ask if it is a cab and can they take her to the courthouse and how much would it cost.

The woman in the passenger seat says, yes. But at that moment, a woman in the back seat notices our camera. And their story quickly changes.

"So you're not a taxi, but she said she was a taxi..." the reporter persists.

She goes on to ask if the people inside the van know if it's against the law to run an unpermitted taxi service, but they take off.

In downtown Fort Myers, Liza tries to get another ride. The driver of a white van, Sonya, assures her she's the taxi she'd called for... even as the reporter looks inside and sees the back seat taken up by 2 child safety seats.

"You don't know if the vehicle is road worthy. They don't have the safeguards of insurance," says Lt. Donnie Fewel, the commander of the Lee County Sheriff's office traffic unit. And he says it's nearly impossible to stop.

"If it's just somebody with a regular car, how do I know they're acting as a taxi? How would I be able to tell? But the offense doesn't occur until it happens in front of a law enforcement officer in a clearly marked taxi cab that doesn't have the proper permit."

Reporter: "That makes it very difficult to catch these guys out there in unmarked cars, charging for fares."

Lt. Fewel: "Yes, it's cat and mouse."

Taxi drivers tell 4 In Your Corner not only are these clandestine cabs not fair; but also, the sheriff's office reminds you, if you get in one, you're putting your life in someone else's hands.

"You don't want to put yourself in a taxi with someone who may be a sex offender or convicted felon. You have no safeguard when you get in a cab that's not permitted," warns Lt. Fewel.

See either of these two permit stickers on the windshield of a cab and know it's properly permitted. Know it's road worthy, fully insured, the meter is calibrated and the driver has a clean background," he adds.

The sheriff's office says in order to stop the illegal cabbies, they need you to speak up. So if you're approached by someone trying to pick you up, and it just doesn't feel right, contact your police department or sheriff's office.