Mumbai Taxi Scams
Dark, loud, crowded. I want to say vibrant but that would imply liveliness and this felt anything but alive. I had already been backpacking across Southeast Asia for 6 months and two weeks in India so this wasn’t my first time in a developing country. I thought I was prepared for Mumbai taxi scams. I was mistaken.
Even before Mumbai, I had already been exposed to the seedy side of India. If you’re an obvious tourist, then you’re seen more as a walking ATM than an actual human being.
I arrived at the Goa airport to catch a flight, looking like your typical backpacker, 60L on the back and a day pack in the front. Within seconds, an airport employee, or at least someone who was dressed like one, asked me which gate I was looking for. I quickly told him and he very kindly asked me to follow him. I was a little hesitant at first but he looked like he belonged there so I happily followed him, like a calf to slaughter.
Then I began to notice that we were bypassing people. A whole lot of people. We walked through lines, barriers, past crowds and queues, all the while getting dirty looks and evil side glances. I assumed that maybe I was late to the plane. Perhaps it was boarding already or I was just on a special flight boarding at a special gate.
When we arrived at my security gate, the helpful employee ushered me to the front of the line. Then he promptly turned, held out his hand expectantly, and asked me for money, eyebrow slightly raised. I was taken aback. Why would an airport employee ask for money?
The answer was, of course, because it was India. The first rule I learned was that nothing is free in India.
Fast forward to arriving in Mumbai Central Train Station at 4:00am. It was late and I was tired and just wanted to get to my hotel. So when I saw the long queue for the taxi, I decided to see if I could find a taxi somewhere else down the road perhaps. That was my first mistake.
A taxi driver-ish looking fellow waved at me yelling, “Taxi?” to which I obligingly nodded yes with enthusiasm. Feeling triumphant that I had luckily found a shortcut, I followed the driver out of the station and down the street. The first drop of doubt splashed into my head as we walked further away from the station, into the darkness and away from any other people. Where the hell was this guy taking me?
When we finally arrived at the car, I was relieved to see that it appeared to be a real taxi. No trunk for me though, I kept my backpacks close in the back seat with me. I winked to myself thinking, “That’s right, I got this.”
The driver got into the driver seat and started the car. Then, some dude got into the front passenger seat. That’s weird, I thought. The driver reassured me that he is a friend, so nothing to worry
about. Well, it’s his taxi. I clutched my day pack, which is where I keep all my valuables, a bit tighter.
Over the course of the short 15 minute cab ride, the dynamic taxi duo attempted to con me 3, possibly 4 times with different Mumbai taxi scams. Let me explain.
Scam #1: Driver Needs Change
It was dark, 4:00am in the morning. I ask the driver to take me to my guesthouse and point to a specific address on Google Maps and off we go. But not even 5 minutes into the ride, we begin to slow down and pull over to what looks like a closed convenience store. I see the driver give his buddy a 1000 Rupee bill, and then buddy steps out and jogs over to the store. The driver tells me that they have to buy gas. Ok, but the meter is… running. And where are the gas pumps? I was about to get my first taste of Mumbai taxi scams.
Before long, buddy comes back and says something to the driver, perhaps in Hindi, perhaps in one of India’s 100 other languages, and gives him back the money. And here in comes the scam.
Driver turns to me and asks me if I have two 500 Rupee bills because the gas station/store/alleyway won’t accept big bills. I immediately know that this is a scam somehow and refuse. I tell him that I have no change but he doesn’t seem to accept my answer. After about 5 minutes of arguing, and the meter was still running, I finally gave in to my better judgement and decided to inspect the 1000 Rupee bill he was offering. I pretended to know what I was doing, rubbed it, scratched it, and lifted it up to the light. When I was sufficiently satisfied that I looked like I knew it was real, I went into my wallet and gave him two 500 Rupee bills. In the darkness of the backseat of the taxi, I looked down at my wallet as I put the bill away and when I looked up, the driver was showing me two 50 Rupee bills and complaining that I gave him the wrong change.
Once again, I was taken aback. What the hell was happening? I could’ve sworn that I gave him two 500’s. Luckily, that day I had just took out some money from an ATM, so I knew exactly how much I should have in my wallet, and I wasn’t wrong. They were trying to scam me by switching out the bills while I wasn’t looking. After many more minutes of arguing and me adamantly stating that I had given them the right change, the driver tried to switch the conversation to asking to change the 50’s, as if that was what he was trying to ask all along. Dismissing it, I told him to drive and we continued on our way.
Scam #2: The Long Way Around
It’s the oldest trick in the book. Take the tourist on an unrequested, unscenic tour of the city to run the meter higher. Which is why I always preload the area of where I’m travelling in Google Maps. It caches it locally on your device so you can figure out where you are even without an internet connection. If the taxi veers off course, I’ll know immediately.
About halfway to my guesthouse, the taxi took a sudden left when it should’ve gone straight. I was watching the little blue dot on my iPhone but I decided to give the driver the
benefit of the doubt. But after a couple of minutes, we continued driving in completely the opposite direction. My patience was getting thin, so I told the driver that we were heading the wrong way and that he needed to turn around. He told me we were taking a short cut and that this way was faster. I showed him my iPhone and said that was impossible because we were going totally in the wrong direction. He resigned and said, “Ok, ok, ok, you show me the way then if you know better than me!” acting as if I had just insulted his mother. I told him to turn around and head back the way we came and then gave him directions to where I wanted to go. Unfortunately, what I didn’t know at the time was that my hotel was so shitty that Google Maps didn’t have its location right either and I was asking the taxi driver to drop me off in a slum back alley, 3 kilometres from my actual hotel, in the dead of night. But I’ll get to that later.
Scam #3: The Mysterious “Mumbai Night Tax”
Before I arrived in Mumbai, I had read that taxis charge more after midnight, which is fine. The meter (and make sure that you get the driver to use the meter!) runs a bit more expensive during the night, supposedly, but I’ve also heard that they tamper with the meters so that they run higher ALL the time. But of course they do.
When we arrived at my destination, which was wrong and completely my own fault, I agreed to pay the final charge on the meter and told the driver that I was doing just that. He told me No, that it was higher because of the Mumbai night tax. What? I completely lost it. I was furious. This was the third scam attempt in such a short taxi ride and I accused him of trying to steal money from me. He showed me a chart that looked official and told me that if I didn’t believe him, I could ask anybody around because they all know about it. Remember, it was now around 4:30am in the morning, in a slum with no one around. And even if there was, it was highly unlikely that they would speak English and be willing to get involved in this argument.
When I finally said forget it, I am paying you what is on the meter and no more, he was so insulted that he didn’t even want any money at all. Apparently, not being able to con me had also gotten on his nerves. No way, I thought, I am not stealing a ride from this taxi driver and giving him the satisfaction of being angry at me. And who knows, maybe he’d call the police on me!
Just before I walked off, his buddy came up to me with the two 500 Rupee bills that I had given him before and asked for his 1000 Rupee bill back. I couldn’t believe the nerve of the guy. He pretty much just admitted that they tried to scam me and that they wanted the bill back so they could scam someone else. So off they drove to find their next victim.
I looked around and realized that I was alone in the dark, in a slum in Mumbai, at 4:30am, completely lost, and nowhere near my hotel. Good job, Garry.
Bonus Scam: Taxi Drives Off With Your Bags
Perhaps they were going to try this but I’ll never know because I prevented any possibility of it happening. The taxi ride had made me sufficiently paranoid that when I arrived at my destination, the first thing I did was gather my things, which I had been holding quite tightly the entire ride, and unload them out of the car. The driver saw me doing this and said, “It’s ok, you pay and get out first. We bring your bags out after.” No. Fucking. Way. My friend.
So there I was, alone in a slum at 4:30am in the morning. It was still pitch dark and this neighbourhood was not a place a tourist, or really anybody for that matter, should be walking alone in the dark with all his gear on him. I would’ve taken a picture but I didn’t want anyone to see my iPhone nor my DSLR. Needless to say, I walked VERY quickly towards where I thought my hotel was. I ended up walking into a dead end alley and reluctantly brought my phone out to look at Google Maps. There was nothing here except darkness, sewage, rats, and a couple of Indian men bathing in the narrow alley outside their dimly lit homes. And they were staring at me. A growing sense of fear overcame me. I thought, “I’ve had a good 6 months but tonight, my luck has run out and in a few minutes I’m going to lose everything I own.”
Luckily, and I honestly don’t remember how exactly, I managed to find a main road and began asking the few random people where my hotel was. I was so lucky (prepared?) that I printed out my hotel reservation so I could show people a picture of the hotel and it’s address. After an hour of wandering haplessly, it was a miracle of luck and the help of a few random locals, I actually managed to find my hotel. Unfortunately, since it was so early, I couldn’t check in yet so I had to sleep in the lobby for 5 hours before I was allowed to get my room. And by lobby, I mean a creaky wooden chair in a room the size of a broom closet, shared with the “concierge” who was a young 20 year old Indian guy sleeping on a tiny mattress behind a small counter.
Welcome to the real Mumbai.
Of course, being the positive person I am, I took this as a learning experience. Without this experience, I might not have seen this side of Mumbai, which is just as real as the rest of it.
To read about some more scams, check out Seat 31B’s post on mumbai taxi scams.
What are your horror stories with Mumbai taxi scams or elsewhere in India? What are the best tips on what to watch or look out for with Mumbai taxi scams?