SEATTLE -- Seattle officials are warning passengers to be on the lookout for shady drivers when trying to catch a ride.

The City s office of Consumer Affairs says it s seen a noticeable increase in for-hire vehicles illegally picking up passengers on the streets of downtown Seattle.

That means laws enacted after a KING 5 investigation have failed to curb a problem that hurts the city s $72 million taxi industry and exposes passengers to a greater chance of being ripped off.

The 2010 investigation found that limo drivers were routinely soliciting passengers in downtown Seattle and the city had no authority to stop them.

State law says limos and Towncars are only allowed to respond to pre-arranged trips in which a passenger calls into an office and books a car.That gives customers a chance to negotiate the rate in advance.

Taxi cabs, by contrast, are the only vehicles allowed to cruise city streets looking for customers.The cabs are more closely regulated and their fares are set and enforced by the City of Seattle.

Limo rates are not regulated, said Craig Leisy, who heads Seattle s Consumer s Affairs Unit.He says customers often pay higher rates for a limo than they would for cab fare.

When a customer hails a taxi, the cabs meter ensures that the customer pays the proper rate.Limos and other for-hire cars don t have meters.

New laws passed after KING 5 s 2010 investigation allow the City to inspect, ticket and fine limo companies that don t follow the law.KING 5 s story showed limo drivers aggressively soliciting passengers at the Coleman dock ferry terminal.

Now, city officials say they ve seen the rise of a new type of violator called a for-hire car.

For-hire cars look like cabs, but they are required to follow the same rules as limos pre-arranged trips only.For-hire cars do not have meters like cabs.

Leisy says the number of licensed for hire cars in Seattle has exploded and a good number of those drivers are now trolling city streets and illegally picking up passengers.

There s been an increase, a significant increase, in the amount of aggressive soliciting, said Leisy.

In a recent sting operation the Consumer Affairs Unit cited 40 drivers for illegally picking up fares.Most of those tickets went to for-hire cars.Sixteen of the citations went drivers for a company called Eastside For Hire.

I got ticketed for something I didn t deserve, said Daniel Vedasso, a driver for Eastside For Hire.

He says he didn t make an illegal pick-up and he s disputing the $240 ticket he received.Vedasso says his rates are better than taxi cab rates.

City officials say undercover inspectors posed as passengers to catch the violators during several nights last month.

Leisy says the problem has become so widespread his office wants to increase the fine for illegally soliciting passengers to $1000.
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