Illegal taxis continue to rip off tourists in Rome, despite efforts to police the activity. NICHOLAS RIGILLO reports.

For some unfortunate tourists, a visit to the Eternal City can get off to a nasty start. As soon as they step off their aeroplane or train, they are solicited by unscrupulous gangs passing themselves off as bona fide taxi drivers. Once inside their unmarked car, they are grossly overcharged and threatened if they refuse to pay.

Despite repeated warnings from travel agencies and guidebooks, illegal taxis continue to harass unsuspecting visitors to Rome. City officials say they are constantly inundated with complaints from tourists who say they have been robbed or shortchanged.

The abusivi, as illegal taxi drivers are called, can easily charge €100, or three times the regular fare, for a ride from Fiumicino’s Leonardo Da Vinci international airport to the centre of town.

And the rip-offs can worsen. Anthony Lombardi, an American working for an English Language school in Rome, says two friends, who recently came to visit him from the US, were charged as much as €200 for a short ride from Termini train station to their hotel.

They hadn’t realised their destination was less than a mile away because the illegal taxi driver took them on a grand tour of Rome’s outskirts before unloading them in Via Nazionale,” Lombardi said. “They thought the price was outrageous, but they ended up paying anyway. Now I always make an effort to pick up visitors myself.”

The abusivi camp inside the terminals of Rome’s two airports, Fiumicino and Ciampino, as well as the main Termini train station. This allows them to intercept tourists before they can spot the regular taxi ranks.

Nicola Di Giacobbe of Unita, a trade union representing most of the city’s 5800 regular taxi drivers, says police refuse to do anything about the abusivi. Regular taxi drivers who plan to report them are threatened or beaten up.

“Only last October a taxi driver named Romano and a colleague had to be taken to hospital with a broken nose and a broken leg after being assaulted by a pack of abusivi at Fiumicino,” Di Giacobbe said.

Taxi drivers claim that the abusivi operate with the complicity of corrupt officials who allow them to jump the queue outside Fiumicino in exchange for a small bribe. Di Giacobbe claims the abusivi have turned into a small organised crime network with their headquarters at the international arrivals of Fiumicino.

Hard hit are not only tourists but also honest taxi drivers like Antonio Lombardozzi. The 55-year-old father of two says he could easily increase his average monthly earning of €1200 by picking up clients at Fiumicino. However, he refuses to do so as he is too scared to go there.

“The airport route is the most lucrative and also the easiest, it means you can drive down the motorway rather than get stuck in traffic all day,” he said. “But I won’t do it. It’s too dangerous. It’s just not worth it.”

Rome city officials say they are aware of the problem and insist they have been clamping down on the abusivi.

“We used to have hundreds of them, now there are only a few dozen left,” says Mauro Calamante, the city councillor responsible for Rome’s public transport system. And yet, abusivi taxi drivers continue to give Rome a bad name by going about their illegal business, seemingly undisturbed.

One difficulty facing city officials is that both Fiumicino and Ciampino are not in Rome and therefore lie outside their jurisdiction. Another problem is that short-staffed policemen are too busy keeping an eye on more serious crimes, or terrorists, to monitor what is considered a minor offence.

Nevertheless, Calamante says his office has taken a number of decisions which he hopes will better safeguard tourists in the future.

These include improving CCTV surveillance at Fiumicino and bringing the taxi rank closer to Termini’s main exit. His office is also considering setting a fixed price for the taxi ride from Fiumicino to the centre of town.

In the meantime, foreigners are advised to follow the kind of advice offered by tourists guides such as Fodor’s: “Use only licensed, metered white cabs, identified by a numbered shield on the side, an illuminated taxi sign on the roof, and a plaque next to the licence plate reading SERVIZIO PUBBLICO. Avoid unmarked, unauthorised, un-metered cars (numerous at Rome airports and train stations), whose drivers actively solicit your trade and may demand astronomical fares.”

• There are about 5800 licensed taxis in Rome and a further 1000 regular limousine services. A ride from from Fiumicino’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport to the city centre should, in normal traffic conditions, cost €35-€40. From Ciampino, the same ride should cost no more than €25. Always insist on paying the price displayed by the taximeter, which also takes night and weekend supplements into account. To this add €1.40 per item of luggage.”