Ever left a wallet, cellphone or PDA in a New York City taxicab?
Good luck getting it back.
Sure, there are stories like the one about the cab driver who, in 2004, returned $78,000 in rare pearl jewelry left in his cab, and the one about the cabbie who, earlier this year, returned a bag containing 31 diamond rings to a rider who had left just a 30-cent tip on an $11 fare.
Alas, such stories are quite rare, according to a new report by a City Council member.
“The current procedure for recovering property lost in taxis is complicated, frustrating, difficult to navigate, and unlikely to result in the return of lost property,” according to the report [pdf], which was released today by Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat.
From June 13 to 19, Ms. Brewer’s staff placed a series of calls to test the system’s ability to help cab passengers identify lost property. Their efforts were frustrated by overwhelmed hot lines at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, contradictory information from city officials and a lost-property maze at the Police Department that seemed to gobble up lost items and never release them.
In general, cab riders should always ask for a meter receipt, which contains the medallion number and enables the taxi commission (or the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a private association that represents large fleet owners) to track down the cab involved.
Riders who have failed to ask for a receipt or write down the cab’s medallion number are largely out of luck. The Taxi and Limousine Commission hotline, at (212) 227-6324, urges such riders to call all eight police precincts around the city that have been designated to receive property left in cabs.
The eight police precincts designated to receive property left in cabs are the 17th Precinct and the Central Park Precinct in Manhattan; the 76th and 94th Precincts in Brooklyn; the 107th and 115th Precincts in Queens; the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx; and the 120th Precinct on Staten Island.
However, calls by Ms. Brewer’s staff to those eight precincts found that many officers were unaware that their precincts had been designated to receive lost property. “Despite T.L.C. protocol, lost items are rarely turned over to the police,” the report states.
Most drivers rarely turn in lost property to the precincts, instead turning it over to the garage at the end of their shift. (This is not true for owner-operators who drive their own cabs.)
“The return of your lost item ultimately relies not only on the good offices of the driver, but on the honesty of the next passenger,” the report states.
But even when property is turned in to the eight designated precincts, the report found, it can be hard to recover, because the Police Department does not keep a computerized database for lost items. Instead, each item is given a numbered paper tag and held in the precinct property room. After several days, the items are moved to police headquarters, “and then nothing can be done without a voucher number from the precinct that received the number: no number, no recovery.”
No one seems to know the number of such items registered in the lost-property systems, but the number “is agreed to very large,” the report states.
The report concludes: “Clearly, taxi customers hoping to find their lost keys, wallets, or cellphones have little chance of ever seeing them again.”
Matthew W. Daus, the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, dismissed the findings as outdated, saying the commission was about to put in place new systems for dealing with passengers. He said in a statement:
As new technology sometimes renders things obsolete, this report is already obsolete. The findings of this report, based on three telephone calls to the T.L.C., either have been or will shortly be entirely resolved by the new customer service technology systems.
Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman, said in a statement:
New York City cab drivers return approximately 30 pieces of lost property to N.Y.P.D. precincts each week, mostly to the 17th and Central Park precincts. because of the concentration of taxis in Manhattan. Property is rarely returned to the six other commands throughout the other four boroughs designated for this purpose. Precinct personnel retain lost property for a week while attempts are made to locate its owners, which succeed in about 20 percent of the attempts. Afterward, property for which owners could not be located is transferred to the N.Y.P.D. Property Clerk’s Office. There are over 800 items reported lost in cabs in 2007 that are currently on hand in the Property Clerk’s Office. Property valued at under $100 is retained for three months, then auctioned or otherwise disposed of. Property valued at $100 to $499 is retained for six moths; $500 to $4,999, one year; $5,000 or more, three years.