Undercover journalist puts spotlight on Prague’s taxi scams

Photo: Tomáš Adamec

For more than a year now, young Czech journalist Janek Rubeš has been waging a war against Prague’s notorious taxi services that have a reputation for overcharging tourists. In his widely popular series broadcast on the internet television Stream.cz, he is also uncovering other tourist scams in the Czech capital. When I spoke to Janek Rubeš, I asked him what sparked his interest in this topic in the first place:

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
“We saw a documentary called A Scam City, made by Conor Woodman for the National Geographic, in which he uncovered different scams that were happening in Prague.

“When he published his documentary the City of Prague reacted by saying that it was all fake, that he faked all the situations and that he hired actors. What he showed was being ripped off by the taxi drivers, being ripped off in the exchange places and so on.

“When we watched it, I figured it was an easy try to find out who is actually right. So I said, let’s take our camera and let’s do exactly the same situations that he showed. We did it and we ended up even worse than Conor Woodman did.

“I was hoping when we published this that the city would react and actually do something, but they didn’t do anything. So that’s when we started to film our new series now which is called Prague Versus crooks, and we have been working on that ever since.”

I have seen the episode focused on taxi drivers, in which you pretend to be an American tourist. How high is the chance of being ripped off? What is your experience?

“It’s almost hundred percent if you go to certain location. In the locations that we are showing, the Old Town Square, Pařížská Street, The Main Train Station and the surroundings of Charles Bridge, you will always get ripped off.

“The reason we are focusing on these locations is that these are highly exposed places where tourists are most likely to get a taxi. You will probably not get ripped off of you get a taxi somewhere in Vinohrady or anywhere else in Prague, but those are places where tourists will not hail a cab.”

What was the most ridiculous fare that you paid?

“Prague is nothing exceptional, yet I would say that we allow these scams to happen more openly.”

“It was two hundred crowns for one kilometre, which is about eight dollars for a kilometre, and we were charged that by a guy who is actually a head of these taxi crooks on Old Town Square. He charged us 790 for a three-kilometre trip.”

Was that the trip from the Old Town Square to the Wenceslas Square?

“You are actually referring to a previous documentary that we did. But you are right, that was also an 800-crown-fare from the Old Town Square to Wenceslas Square. It is actually funny, for the listeners that don’t know Prague, since it’s a distance that you would walk faster.

“If the driver would have been fair he would just tell you to walk, because it’s a four-minute walk. Or you could take a car but because Prague is full of pedestrian zones and one way streets, the taxi driver would have to go around half of the city.”

Who are these dishonest taxi-drivers? Do they work for any of the big companies?

“They don’t. They go for themselves. They don’t work for any company. But all of them are sort of a company. They have their own rules among each other. They almost act as if they were a company, but they are not.”

About ten years ago, the former Prague mayor Pavel Bém did the same thing you are doing now. He pretended to be a foreign tourist and he was also ripped off. Do you think anything has changed since then?

“The number of the crooked taxi-drivers has lowered by hundreds. So yes, the situation is better than ten years ago, but they are still on the exposed locations.

“And I don’t know the answer to the questions to why nothing happened. I guess it’s a minor problem to the City Hall. I guess tourists are not the voters so the City Hall doesn’t really care about them, even though they are bringing the most money to the city so we should be kind to them. We should try to host them the best way we can which we are not doing right now.”

Adriana Krnáčová,  photo: Prokop Havel
The reason I am asking is that you have succeeded to interview the current mayor of Prague, Adriana Krnáčová. What was her reaction?

“She said she is going to set up a team and gather people from different systems, from the City Police, from the City Hall, from the taxi companies to try solve the situation. So basically they are going to start working on it.

“Mostly she was arguing with the fact that she has bigger problems on her hands which I understand but once you are a mayor of a city size of Prague you will have more than one problem.

“With all respect to the mayor she is really unaware of the problem. I can understand that, she really does have big problems on her hand, but she should still at least have her ears open to what I am trying to tell her and that I am actually trying to help the city.

“The interview we had didn’t turn out that way. We basically started an argument, which wasn’t really nice.”

You also interviewed the head of the taxi drivers’ union, who actually openly admitted that he was using the same methods of stealing from the tourists, didn’t he?

“He did. Actually that’s the guy who charged us eight hundred crowns for those three kilometres. He was very open about what he does and I was open to him in the same way. I told him I was a journalist and I am going to try to expose what you do and I am going to try to prevent you from what you are doing.

“He said he doesn’t pay taxes from certain trips. He said he charges higher rates than the city allows because the limit is set to 28 crowns per one kilometre which is about a euro for a kilometre.

“But then everything flipped, when one of the members of the group that he is running attacked me. And at that point I got really upset because they wren t playing fair. I was really naive because bot they are going to sue me and they will basically try to do anything to stop me from what I am doing.”

“There are threats and they are almost on a daily basis, but it’s nothing serious, nobody is throwing Molotov cocktails at my house.”

So have you actually received any threats?

“They were very upset, of courses. They didn’t like the fact that I was showing their faces and really everything changed the moment one of the taxi drivers attacked us, and at that point they basically stopped communicating with me the normal way and they started to send threats.

“There are threats and they are almost on a daily basis, but it’s nothing serious, nobody is throwing Molotov cocktails at my house.”

You said at the beginning that the first series you follow the steps of Connor Woodman who also made the series in other cities. How does Prague stand in comparison to other cities?

“It’s definitely comparable. I actually had a chance to sit down with Conor Woodman, when he as here last week. They were filming with BBC this time a new show about Prague and I was helping them to point out at the bad guys.

We were talking about the other cities he filmed and there are different scams in every city around the globe. I guess the only city I wasn’t scammed in was Tokio, which I visited just recently. Prague is nothing exceptional, yet I would say that we allow these scams to happen more openly.

“We are never going to prevent pickpockets on trams but if we allow these taxi drivers to stand on the most exposed locations, we are really doing a bad job. I don’t think I am going to stop the taxi-drivers from stealing. But at least please move them out of the city centre. Let’s make it harder for them.”

Apart from taxi drivers, what kind of scamps have you focused on?

“We are going to continue with restaurants, exchange places and we will also focus on racism. With the restaurants for instance, they are hard to call the cops to, because you really have a chance to stop this from happening, but at least we can point at it and encourage people to write reviews on different websites to prevent tourists from going to these places.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
Do you only make these series or are you also working on something else?

“My job is working for Stream.cz, which is an internet television, so this is not the only show I do. I work on other programmes as a camera guy or an advisor.”

I was just wondering whether you only concentrate on negative things or whether you also produce some more positive shows…

“Absolutely. For instance, we have just visited Banát, which is a place in Romania, where the Czech minority lives. So we are going to do a show about that. We also do a programme with Adam Gebrian, an architect, so it’s a show about architecture. So we do many different things and I would say that most of them are positive, so it definitely balances.”