Dear PoPville – Be Aware of Unmarked Cars Offering Rides in the U Street Area

Photo by PoPville flickr user Sanjay Suchak

“Dear PoPville,

On Sunday morning around 4:45AM I was at the corner of Vermont and U flagging down a cab for a ride to the airport for a business trip. A cab going in the opposite direction was in the process of making the U turn to get to me when another car pulled up right in front of me and the guy inside told me to get in and he would give me a ride anywhere I wanted to go. I was a little taken aback by the offer and didn’t respond at all so he offered again. At this point, an older guy walking by behind me asked loudly if everything was OK. The guy who pulled over didn’t move so the older guy asked again if everything was OK. By this point the cab was right behind the car so I thanked the older guy, said yes, and got in the cab.

Later in the day, I was telling the story to a friend who suggested I let the police know. The woman at 311 was upset with me for waiting so long to report it and the police were glad I called. Apparently they have had quite a bit of this happening recently. Previous reports had been of two black men who were pulling over to ask for sex and when refused, showing a knife. He added that I was the 2nd person to report a white man doing this that night.

Despite the hour (or maybe because of it), U Street still had a lot of pedestrian traffic. I’m 5’10” and was freshly showered, wearing work clothes. I say these things because I wouldn’t have considered myself an obvious target – I wasn’t on an empty street, I didn’t appear at all intoxicated or still out from a night of fun, and I’m not petite (and therefore potentially an easier grab). I’m urban savvy enough to be aware of my environment and like to think of myself as pretty smart. This, though, caught me totally off guard. Now, I’ll be much more aware of people in cars and not just the people walking by. I don’t have any intention of becoming a paranoid homebody but I’ll definitely keep my eye out for this potential problem.

The police officer mentioned the gypsy cabs too as a possibility but said he suspected this was trouble, especially since they’ve been seeing a rise in this recently and given the hour, location, etc.. From the sounds of it, yes there are two – one is a car with two black men (working together) and the other (the one I encountered) a single white man.

Thought maybe others would like to know as well.”

81 Comment

  • I’m confused. Who would get in the car of an unmarked car? Did it look like a cab?

    I’m not blaming the OP for reporting this, but I’m trying to figure out who would be duped by this. Maybe I’m missing something.

    • Ummm…. *raises hand*

      In my defense I was passed by at least 6 other cabs and I was tired and drunk. The guy who picked me up was black though, I gave him $5 for the ride. No weirdo stuff happened.

      • You are certainly lucky!

      • Um…Me too. Stumbled out of Town one night drunk-ish and hailed a cab. The car pulled over and i got in. It wasn’t until I realized there was no meter that this was not a cab. I made it safely home the 10 blocks. Some of these people ARE just trying to make a buck. That being said I would not knowingly get into a gypsy cab. LOL

      • vz

        Yeah I’ll admit a few years ago back when finding a cab on H St around Rock n Roll was pretty impossible past 2am, I took gypsy cabs on two occasions. Now, I am a man, and was accompanied by a woman. Both times worked out completely fine. The first time was an actual gypsy cab, the second was a guy who was legitimately hard up for some cash. I gave them each generous tips ($5-10).

        That being said, with these shadier events of late I wouldn’t go this route again. Someone tried to offer a woman and then me a random ride on 14th outside of Marvin a few months ago. After both declining, we agreed that the guy was sketch.

      • Same here!

        It was about year and a half ago, a friend was visiting and we both went to NYC for two days. It was pouring rain when we got back and there were a few cab drivers just waiting for people…outside of their taxis. I saw people leaving with them and getting on actual cabs.

        This man approached me, asked where I was going, I said Shaw! yell to my friend, Come on! and left with him. When we got to the car, *surprise*, it was just a car. It was raining so bad, we got in.

        We made it safely, but he charged us double. I was, of course, questioning him why for a bit. He claimed because he was a unmarked, town car (a very nice one!). I was refusing to pay double, but my friend insisted I just pay. So I did.

        After we were inside, still dripping wet, I wondered, “what the hell did we just did?!” It was incredibly stupid on my part, since I’m the one that lives here. But, that rain and the (not many to choose from) amount of cabs, reminded of my days living in NE, being denied service. And here was a guy (who I thought was a cabbie) offering his services.

        It was stupid, I know. And it will never happen again.

    • People do stupid things all the time.

    • I’ve had to do this in NYC a couple of times. I guess it’s more common there? At least that’s what I’ve been told by friends. Haven’t spend enough time there to say for sure.

    • saf

      There used to be a bunch of old guys with cars who hung out at the Safeway and gave shoppers rides home for tips. Lots of people used them.

  • From your description there is little indication that the unmarked taxi driven by a white man had any connection with the black men who were reportedly seeking sex from cars and showing knives. It sounds to me more like a guy trying to make a buck, albeit illegally.

    Certainly never get in an unmarked taxi but please be cautious about going around saying “watch out for cars!” and hyping dangers which may not exist.

    • “It sounds to me more like a guy trying to make a buck, albeit illegally.”

      -Right, because unless a white guy actually shows you a weapon he clearly doesn’t mean you any harm.

  • Gypsy cabs are awesome. As someone who works on U Street and gets out at late hours – after 4-5AM, most cab companies will not pick us up if we are not white or Ethiopian. We rely on gypsy cabs to get home.

    • What’s a gypsy cab?

    • I am a little confused why gypsy cabs exist in DC as DC doesn’t have a cap on hack licenses or anything.

    • Funny, I had never been offered a ride in a gypsy cab before the weekend of the 4th. I know other cities have long traditions of black market cabbing — Baltimore, for instance.

      I’m a little miffed at legit cabs for not picking me up in my neighborhood on weekends after 10 (I’m a white male and often freshly showered.) Why don’t they stop for me? I took my second gypsy cab this weekend. Of course, this makes me think about ever taking another gypsy cab.

      On the other hand, the gypsy cabs seem to be real good at working the areas that legit cab drivers don’t cluster around. Too bad legit cabs serve us so unevenly, that there’s huge holes of unmet demand for cabs in areas a couple blocks off of main strips — which the gypsies exploit.

      • saf

        “I’m a little miffed at legit cabs for not picking me up in my neighborhood on weekends after 10”

        You are doing better than we are. We have NEVER been able to get a cab to come here since Clean Air Cabs closed.

      • Best thing you can do with gypsy cabs is to get the dude’s number and ask if you can text them in the future if you need a ride. I have a guy (sidi, he’s the best) who drives a brand new denali and will scoop me up anywhere with 30 minutes notice. It’s about the same as a cab (he quotes me a rate, tip is included) and much more baller.

  • several years ago my friends and i were trying to get a cab at N Cap and Florida on nye. several cars pulled over and offered us rides. very very sketchy. we walked home instead.

  • In other related PSA news, don’t accept candy from strangers either.

    • And don’t go swimming a half hour after eating!

    • Yeah, I can’t understand why anyone over the age of 4 would even consider getting into some random persons unmarked car after being offered a “ride”.

      Does the PoP readership really need this kind of PSA?

      • Isn’t the answer clear? Because the van with blacked out windows had “free candy” spray painted on the side…duh.

      • Because there is an actual thing called “gypsy cabs,” where unlicensed drivers pick you up and drop you off for money.

        You’ll notice that there have been no reports of people getting kidnapped by fake gypsy cabs. Instead, the police said that “Previous reports had been of two black men who were pulling over to ask for sex and when refused, showing a knife.” This is not a fake gypsy cap situation.

        I don’t know if this guy was going to kidnap the OP. I trust her creep-o-meter. He could have just been a gypsy cab. Until I hear a report of a gypsy cab kidnap, I’m not going to worry about it.

      • In all seriousness it’s probably no more dangerous than getting into a real cab.

  • One method is called hitching a ride, the other is called hailing a cab. I am confused as to the controversy or alert raised by this post. The distinction is obvious.

  • Wow, thanks for the wall of text including your physical description, showering habits, and street smarts.

    How about this next time:

    “A guy in a car offered me a ride. It wasn’t a cab. I passed.”

    Oh wait, that would make it a non-story. Because that’s what it is.

    • I think the description is there so we know it’s not the same girl who walked up the ramp and got assaulted by the security guard. Not sure it helped….

    • the real story here is that a 911 operator actually gave a damn.

    • I totally agree. I don’t understand how a guy offering a ride (which I’d just turn down and walk away) is related to a different person asking for sex and threatening people with a knife.

      Have people never really had things like this happen? I’ve been offered a ride like this in the middle of downtown on a workday. Some people are trying to make money. Some are trying to hit on you. A few are actually shady. Just decline the ride.

    • figby

      Men don’t really get how anxious and worried most women are about personal safety, 100 precent of the time. I appreciate the OP and her story — and she makes a really good point, now we have to start worrying about the cars, too.

      But go ahead and roll your eyes and mock — I hope nothing happens to your wife or sister.

  • If you all don’t like what’s on the blog, you don’t have to read the blog. Go start your own and write about other things you consider more important than safety.

    Thanks for posting this information PoP. I didn’t know this was going on, but now I know.

    • Why can’t we not like the stuff on the blog and critisize the OP in the comments?

      The point is, some of us think that the post is ridiculous, and are exercising our right to mock it. If you think it is valuable, great (and also see some more useful advice @11:45)…nobody forced you to read the comments. If you want to waste time complaining about the dissenters, you better budget a lot of free time on this blog.

      • Because the people who are uselessly negative (as opposed to constructively critical) waste everyone else’s time and needlessly depress them. It would be fine if the pointlessly negative people would post on only some blogs, forums, newstories, etc. Instead, however, they seem to feel the need to vent everywhere – thus inhibitting the rest of us from enjoying and benefiting from any such site.

        • so don’t respond to them.

        • I am sorry that you are so depressed from reading internet blog comments.

          I am also sorry that you have to sift through the comments that are ‘useless’ to you to get to the constructive ones.

          I for one find them entertaining and thus, useful.

          • Photodork, did you consider that by jumping all over someone who’s story you don’t care for may discourage other people from sharing stories that you might find useful?

          • Photodork, did you consider that by jumping all over someone whose story you don’t care for may discourage other people from sharing stories that you might find useful?

    • Mostly agreed with Jason. Too often the commenters on here really seem to snark it up, rather than disagreeing in a civil, respectful manner.

  • We live in a free country and I think I should be able to get into any car I want to, unless it’s private or the President’s car or something.

  • Didn’t something like this happen to The Washingtonienne?

  • Wow, the “Dear PoPville” posts over the past couple days have been quite remarkable. This is turning into the “Prince of Overly Dramatic Writing” blog.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for reminding me about Washingtonienne!!!! I miss her.

  • Thanks for posting PoP. This happened to me recently (I did not get in, obviously) and I didn’t think to report it — dumb. Now I’ll be sure to get the license plate and call 911.

  • I see this happening a lot in front of the CH Giant as well. Some guy is always offering me a ride when I have a load of groceries. Of course, I wasn’t wearing any clothes, so it was probably my fault.

    One time I ran away and up a ramp when a security guard tackled me. Oh wait, that was something else.

  • I’ve only taken a gypsy cab once, and it was way overpriced (no meter, obvs) but didn’t seem at all sketchy. I wasn’t freshly showered, though.

  • This has happened to me at least 5 times in the past few months… most of the time I am with a few people. Usually its just a random dude trying to make a few bucks.

  • Car service? NY has them…is it the same thing as a gypsy cab?

    • When I lived in NY, “gypsy cabs” were black livery cars which were licensed as limo drivers, but not to pick up fares off the streets.

      • Exactly, gypsy cabs in NYC were always black town car type vehicles that always had plates starting with “T”; you’d negotiate the destination and fare before you got in, and away you’d go. Sometimes is was a better deal than taking a regular cab, especially if going a long way (ie, EWR).

        I haven’t taken a gypsy cab in DC but I’m not surprised they’re out there, especially in this economy. DC taxis are terrible.

  • DC has a long history of gypsy cabs who are at worst perfectly harmless and at best very helpful. Back in the day 84?) when my g/f and I lived on 11th and Mass without a car, we’d do a major grocery run to the 9th St. Giant and get some old pensioner in a big old Oldsmobile or something to drive us back.

    More recently, when we were trying to get to the insanely crowded Rally for Sanity and all cabs were full and the metro line was spilling onto Irving Street, a nice lady with a minivan who picks up cash giving rides from the Target to nearby homes gave us a lift. On the way, we hit the Giant for the first time in years and sure enough, some old guy who clearly had never been farther north than Florida Avenue before was happy to stop telling lies to his old friends in the parking lot and give us a ride.

    We were unshowered, btw.

    Not saying 5AM stuff is safe, but it’s highly likely that the guy not a pervert, but rather an independent small businessman in the best tradition of American entrepreurialism.

  • breaking news: prob not a good idea to get in unmarked cars at 4am.

    moving on.

  • Shouldn’t they be called “Roma cabs”?

  • I’ve taken the Gypsy cabs a couple times very late at night when all the cabs seem to be full and passing me by. I’ve never had issues and the people driving them couldn’t have been nicer and accepted whatever money I was willing to offer them.

    That being said, it’s a gamble. I’m a 190lb Male so I’m not much of a target, I can take bigger risks. But if there were two men in the car offering the ride or somebody that I felt uncomfortable around I would pass. I think I have to trust my instincts on such decisions.

  • My wife sometimes has to work at 4am. She would often stand out at the corner in Adams Morgan to try to hail a cab. One day a cop pulls up and says get in. She does and he drives her all the way to work downtown. I thought that was pretty cool of him to do, but always wondered if he had other intentions (if you know what I mean).

  • didn’t something like this happen on the Simpsons?! The cab actually had a sign that read, “unmarked taxi”

    Gypsy Cab driver: Sir, I’m afraid you do not appreciate the severity of the situation.

    Homer: well, at least let my son go.

    Gypsy Cab driver: I’m afraid he is already gone.


  • I do think there is a difference — and OP is not clear about which end of the spectrum this was on — between, say, a black towncar with a livery license plate offering you a ride, and some random dude in a Nissan telling you to get in.

    While I’ve used them much more in NY, where they are way more prevalent, I’ve never really had a bad gypsy cab experience. (Maybe with the exception of a few contentious price negotiations.) To be fair, I am a 200-lb. male so maybe I’m not really a target, but I wouldn’t get into a random car unless it seems like it is a livery driver trying to make a few bucks.

    • +1

      I have to wonder with the limos though, whether somebody paid for them hourly, then they go to the club, then the guy just drives around looking for quick fares. Also, always negotiate the fare and destination UP FRONT, as in, before you get in, not in the front seat.

    • also, don’t use them at the airport or union station. you’ll see guys occasionally working the baggage areas or the taxi stand. cabbies play by the rules (queuing, paying fees, etc.) and these guys don’t.

  • I will say that I have taken a gypsy cab – I frequent Adams Morgan Dupont and Georgetown and if it’s after 1am/2am forget it I can’t get a cab (btw I’m a 27year old blk man) ….. After working for 12 hours at a bar I don’t want to wait 45min for someone to pick me up…. I have literally seen cabs drive by me and pick up someone else – at this point I don’t get mad at taxis cause there is nothing I can do so I just take my chances with a gypsy lol –

  • About couple years ago a gypsy driving a black town car picked a couple women who wanted to be driven in to Alexandria with two different destinations. After he dropped off the first chic he detoured to some shady ass corner and pulled a knife and told the girl to take off her clothes. Gladly she managed to get away from the freak. Some of you retards out there need to think twice before you get in to one of these unmarked Lincoln town cars, I am pretty sure your mother have told you not to ride with strangers decades ago!

  • in baltimore we called these ‘gypsy’ cabs… hacks

  • hey op, i’m really sorry this happened to you. it’s creepy and gross and i’m really glad you’re safe.

    but fyi and for the anyone reading – your appearance, professional or casual, drunk or sober, clean or filthy, is not as big a factor in your potential to be harassed or assaulted. social scientists, law enforcement, everyone who studies rape, assault and harassment agree that it has almost nothing to do with the victim and everything to do with the perpetrator.

  • I don’t understand why everyone thinks this is necessarily a non-story.

    There have been at least three incidents recently in the police reports (that I remember top of the head) of unmarked cars offering to take people home from bars or bar areas like U street in the very early hours of the morning. In all three cases the passengers were driven elsewhere and robbed and gun/knifepoint.

    I presume that this has something to do with why the 311 operator found it interesting.

    Having been the victim of a similar crime myself (in a country where unmarked cabs are the norm) I am appreciative of the information as I’d rather not repeat that experience. The fact that there ARE legit gypsy cabs in DC is precisely why the stories in the police blotter are worrisome. Plenty of people do use unmarked cabs in this city and some criminals are taking advantage of that situation.

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