In September, Margarita Bekker and husband Chris Schlesinger hopped into a San Francisco taxi. Their 1.1-mile Yellow Cab ride to a rooftop birthday dinner took 11 minutes.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bekker paid via credit card using the driver’s PayPal terminal after the cab’s built-in device couldn’t read her card.
The meter showed a $7.90 fare and she added a 25% tip for a total of $9.87. The driver said she’d be emailed a receipt, which never happened.
A few days later, her credit card bill arrived. She was astounded to see that she’d been charged a whopping $9,875 for that short trip - 1,000 times more than it actually cost.
It seemed like an obvious mistake: that the driver must have entered extra digits, either accidentally or deliberately.
She called Bank of America, her credit card issuer, to report fraud. Eventually the bank said it wasn’t fraud since she had proffered her credit card herself, and she must file a billing dispute, which she did.
“After reviewing the documentation, we found that the amount you were billed was calculated correctly,” the bank said in a letter reviewed by The Chronicle.
In other words, she was on the hook for $9,875. She called the bank many times, often while crying. Agents told Bekker that the merchant (meaning the cab driver) said the transaction was legitimate and had a receipt signed by her, although it didn’t match the signature on her driver’s licence.
She launched her own inquiries, spending hours on the phone. “I do not believe that the onus to investigate should be on me,” she said.
“(Bank of America’s) logic that if a merchant said it is not fraud, it is not fraud, victimises people like me even further.”
She accumulated lots of documents. Yellow Cab combed its computer system and found a record that it had been a $7.90 ride. Her Google timeline showed she’d only been in the car for 11 minutes.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees taxis in the city, said it was clearly an overcharge and contacted the driver, to no avail.
PayPal told her its only role was to provide the card reader and her credit-card issuer took precedence in handling the case.
“It seems like everyone except BofA saw that I was overcharged,” she said. “Still, the only entity that can do anything is BofA, and they keep telling me that the merchant told them it was a correct charge.”
Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, said Bekker was caught between a rock and a hard place. “She did everything right - and still lost,” he said.
“It’s very bizarre that the credit card company would dig in its feet on this, especially when logic indicates it is an erroneous charge. Unfortunately she has very little recourse. If she fails to pay, then her credit rating will go down and she’ll get into credit problems.”
To prevent overcharges, San Francisco cabs come with a built-in payment terminal that is linked to the meter. However, the SFMTA allows drivers to use their own point-of-sale devices as well, because sometimes they can get better rates on payment processing fees.
Bekker says she thinks the city should end that policy. “Obviously, it’s a horrible situation for (Bekker) and we feel for her,” said Chris Sweis, CEO of Yellow Cab. In his four years running the company, “it’s the first time something this egregious has happened,” he said.
Besides digging up the receipt, he called Bank of America on Bekker’s behalf. The driver, whom The Chronicle is not naming because he has not been charged with a crime, “was uncooperative” when Yellow Cab asked him to refund the money, Sweis said.
The driver sent a brief reply to an email from The Chronicle claiming that the issue had been resolved in December. Taxi drivers are independent contractors, not employees.
The driver had leased a cab and medallion from Yellow Cab for $600 a week for about three months and stopped driving about a week after Bekker’s ride, Sweis said.
Like all cab drivers in San Francisco, the driver had a permit that the city issued after a criminal background check was performed. “This situation should never have happened,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said in an email.
The agency investigates complaints to determine if disciplinary action is warranted, which could mean warning or fining the driver, as well as suspending or revoking the driver’s permit. In this case, “there will be disciplinary action taken,” Kato said.
After The Chronicle contacted Bank of America, it reached out to Bekker and said it had decided not to charge her the money after all. A bank representative told Bekker and The Chronicle that it had already been reviewing the issue.
Bekker is dubious that it would have acted without media intervention, noting that she’d already spent more than three months calling, emailing, faxing, mailing and tweeting to the bank.
Bank of America did not respond to questions about why it didn’t flag the unusually large purchase as suspected fraud in the first place.
Bekker feels less trusting of people now. And she’s doing one thing differently. “I now demand paper receipts everywhere,” she said.