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Monday, September 27, 2010

New York’s worst cabby confesses: ‘I did it for gas money’

Meet the city's greediest cabby, whose fare-scamming mantra was right out of W.C. Fields -- "Never give a passenger an even break."

Santiago Rossi, the worst offender in the most infamous taxi-overcharge scheme in city history, told The Post he had good reason to rip off thousands of dollars from unsuspecting riders -- it was easy money.

"I did it for the gas money," sniffed Rossi, 66, who allegedly cheated 5,127 unwitting passengers out of $11,066.45.

Incredibly, Rossi even defiantly blamed the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission for his behavior -- griping that it shouldn't have issued meters that allowed the drivers to scam riders.

"Why didn't the TLC know about the vulnerabilities [of the meters]?" said Rossi, No. 1 among the 59 rogue drivers rounded up last week in Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.'s sting.

Rossi spoke to The Post exclusively while jailed at the Manhattan House of Detention. He has since made bail and is back home in Hollis, Queens, awaiting his next court date.

Prosecutors have said they want him to do hard time -- four years in prison -- if found guilty.

Rossi insisted to The Post that his ruse began with an innocent mistake, although his web of deception grew quickly from there.

About two years ago, Rossi said, he accidentally hit the button on his taxi meter that automatically put it at Rate 4 -- the suburban double fare -- even though the trip was within city limits.

But instead of pulling over and explaining the issue to his rider, he saw the potential for easy money in hard economic times and allowed the meter to charge the rider the higher fare.

He then exploited the scheme again. And again. And again.

"It became a habit," he said. "I never kept track of the amount of times I did it."

He said he didn't talk to other drivers about the scheme because "I thought I was the only one doing it."

He mostly preyed on tourists, he said. Vance has said most of the cheated riders were going to places like Times Square and Grand Central Terminal.

But Rossi said that occasionally a savvy New Yorker would realize the fare was "clicking" up too fast and confront him. He said he would apologize to them and pay them the difference.

Eventually, two whistleblowers alerted the TLC and the city's widespread investigation began, netting Rossi and the others.

Rossi said he used the dough to help pay for gas and even his mortgage. He insisted that he now realizes the scam isn't worth the potential prison time.

"I'd rather go home, have my wife slap me across my face, and I'd turn the other cheek so that she could hit me again," he said.

With tears streaming down his face, he said, "I brought shame to my family."

But Rossi continued to blame the TLC and the meter manufacturer for making a gizmo that allowed so many drivers to overcharge.

"It's basically the TLC's way of not accepting any of the blame for what was happening," he said. "They're going to blame the cab drivers and then wash their hands like Pontius Pilate."

Weeks after the scam was uncovered earlier this year, TLC chief David Yassky had a warning system installed on all taxi TVs to alert riders when Rate 4 is turned on.

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