A new taxi scam has hit the streets of Toronto. Here's what to look out for

A brazen and elaborate scam is taking place on the streets of Toronto that involves fake taxis, a stolen car and sleight of hand to swap out debit cards.

The scheme recently came to light when Toronto writer Stephen Lautens shared his experience on Twitter in hopes of warning others.

In an interview with Yahoo Canada News, Lautens explains that he was leaving a holiday party in Toronto’s business district last Friday when he and his wife hailed what they believed was a Beck taxi with its light on. The car was outfitted with vinyl barriers between the passengers' seats and the front seats, to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Lautens says the driver was very chatty.

The driver has to be charming otherwise they won’t be successful.

“We talked about everything from him getting his new snow tires to the Russian prisoner exchange swap to the joys of picking up drunk people from the entertainment district,” he tells Yahoo Canada News.

When they arrived to Lautens’ home, he noticed the meter was about a dollar less than what was the usual price. When he tried to pay the driver with cash, the driver told him he only takes cards. When Laurens tried to pay with a credit card, the machine appeared to have a connection error. The driver told him he’d take a look, took the card and the payment machine, then asked if Lautens had a debit card.

“As he’s fiddling on the same machine with the debit card…I noticed the windows were deeply tinted,” he says. “His driver's licence was displayed on the back of the seat of the car. It had the meter, the little round emergency light, it had the Beck number on it and a city of Toronto taxi plate. It was a perfect replica of a Beck taxi.”

When he was handed back his credit card, Lautens noticed it wasn’t his. The driver told him people leave wallets in his cab all the time so he must have mixed it up, then handed back his card.

After his debit card went through, Lautens was given a receipt and left the car. It wasn’t until he was back home that he noticed the debit card wasn’t his.

“I immediately went to my laptop and locked all my cards,” he says.

‘They're hoping you've had a few drinks’

Next, Lautens called Beck Taxi. When he gave them the taxi’s three digit number, which Lautens remembered to take down, they told him that the taxi didn’t exist. They were able to look up the time and journey of the trip he’d just taken, and through GPS, Beck confirmed that there were no cabs in that area at that time.

Lautens left a message with police and got a response a day later through email. They told him they were looking into it. When he mentioned he had someone else’s debit card, Lautens was told that person had lost $1,500 as a result of a similar scam.

“What they do is pick people up late at night, they’re hoping you’ve had a few drinks, it’s dark in the back, you’re trusting it’s a Beck taxi, so your guard is down,” he says. “The driver has to be charming otherwise they won’t be successful. The card swapping stuff back and forth is like a magician doing card tricks, where you’re not really watching the close up magic.”

In the end, Lautens considers himself lucky as he managed to lock his accounts in time not to lose any money, and ended up getting a free ride home since the payment terminal was a dummy.

Beck Taxi car stolen from driver months ago

Kristine Hubbard, the operations manager with Beck Taxi, explains there's more to the story. Back in October, a Beck taxi was stolen from a driver. While it's been reported to police and licensing and standards, a new license with the same number has since been issued to the driver who had his car stolen.

"Now there are two identical taxis running around the city," she says. "One that's legitimate and that no one thought would still being used in the way it's being used now. But it is a stolen vehicle and the city and Toronto police were made aware of it months ago."

She says there are a few points worth noting if customers want to avoid such a situation.

"No taxi driver is going to refuse cash," she stresses. "That's not a policy of any company or taxi driver."

Hubbard also suggests to order taxis through the Beck app. That way you can connect with legitimate, professionally owned vehicles and pay in the app or in the car. It allows you to track the car, as well as the driver's number and name.

She also stresses not to ever let your debit card out of your sight when paying for a taxi.

"Don't hand it to another person," she says. "The driver should pass back the point of sale terminal and you have to enter PIN number anyway so you're going to have it in your hand, inserting those details."

Toronto, Ontario, Canada-December 1, 2019: Motion blur of a Beck Taxi after a snowfall in the downtown district. The company sees increased business during bad weather days.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada-December 1, 2019: Motion blur of a Beck Taxi after a snowfall in the downtown district. The company sees increased business during bad weather days. (Yelena Rodriguez Mena via Getty Images)

Toronto Police share tips on avoiding scams

Toronto Police said they are aware of the scam and are warning the public to be vigilant when using any type of public transport that results in debit or credit card transactions.

They suggest the following tips:

- Do not leave your debit or credit card unattended inside a Point of Sale terminal anywhere or at any time;

- Be aware of taxi numbers and company names when using their services;

- Be aware of the driver's identification that is displayed to the customer in clear view in the rear of the cab;

- Do not make payments for an unknown person, using your personal card, in exchange for cash;

- Inspect your card after each transaction and ensure it is your card;

- Cover your fingers when entering your PIN.