Thousands of tourists and residents who took New York City's iconic yellow taxis were quietly ripped off by drivers who frequently manipulated their meters to double the fare rate, officials said as 59 drivers were arrested.
Six drivers reeled in more than 10,000 US dollars (£6,387) apiece by repeatedly bumping their meters up to a higher suburban rate when they actually were in the city, the Manhattan district attorney's office said. One driver overcharged more than 5,100 times between November 2008 and June 2010, prosecutors said.
Unsuspecting passengers overpaid an average of about USD5 (£3.19), officials have said. But they said the overcharges added up to a sprawling scam among the cabs that are part of fast-paced life in New York and are seen fondly as symbols of the nation's largest city.
The criminal cases represent the most serious offenders among thousands of drivers believed to have deployed the fare trick before the city took steps to stop it this spring, officials said.
Still, officials stressed that the allegations involve a fraction of the city's roughly 48,000 yellow-cab drivers - and that their roughly 13,000 taxis are now equipped with warning systems that alert passengers if the higher rate is being charged.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy group, criticised the criminal cases, derived from data collected through taxi technology that includes GPS systems.
The investigation began after a passenger complained to the city about a fare that seemed to go up too fast last July.
The city Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) concluded in May that almost 22,000 cabbies had improperly charged the double rate, which is supposed to apply only when taxis cross into suburban Westchester or Nassau counties. Passengers were overcharged 286,000 times, for a total of about USD1.1 million (£702,576), the TLC said.
Drivers said some seeming overcharges were actually honest mistakes. Taxi Commissioner David Yassky said in May that cabbies who overcharged once or twice would not be punished.
Wednesday marked the most serious potential punishment so far: arrests on felony charges of scheming to defraud against 45 drivers, and misdemeanour petty larceny cases against another 14.