5 Outrageous Ways People Try to Game Online Reviews

Crowd of Pinnochios

The inn that threatened $500 fines to guests writing negative reviews is hardly the only example of an attempt to manipulate the user-review system.

How much do user reviews and ratings matter to businesses? Consider this: According to one study, millennials trust online opinions even more than the input of people they know. In other words, online reviews matter A LOT. The consensus thinking is that a restaurant with a slew of nearly unanimous five-star ratings is a can’t-miss, while only a fool would book a hotel with just a dozen reviews, 10 of them two stars or less.

Because these comments can make or break a business, it’s understandable that attempts to game the system and boost one’s ratings are widespread. With Yelp celebrating its 10th anniversary this week and instances of review manipulation still going viral, now seems like a fine time to recap the many ways that businesses, their customers, and even the review sites themselves have compromised the integrity of online reviews.

Threatening to Fine Negative Reviewers
The revelation that an upstate New York inn would charge you $500 if it hosted your event and any of your guests posted an negative online review went viral this week. “If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review,” states the policy of the hotel, the Union Street Guesthouse in Hudson, N.Y. The move—and corresponding bad publicity—hasn’t exactly helped the establishment’s online ratings. At last check, the guesthouse had 1.5 stars on Yelp, with many reviews (and one-star ratings) posted after word spread about the $500 fine.

It’s the latest example of businesses threatening guests or customers who dare to bash them in reviews. There is quite a long history of businesses suing individuals who have posted negative reviews on the web, and while such suits usually end up decided in favor of the reviewer, the threat of a lawsuit—or just some nasty emails—can have a chilling effect on how freely reviewers voice their opinions. Especially if they’re negative.

A Consumer Reports study on online ratings services, meanwhile, criticized Google+ Local because businesses could reach out to customers and convince them to swap out a negative review for a positive one, after some cajoling and perhaps, offering a refund or making other amends. “This can skew the ratings positively,” the story explained, “because assuaged customers can always delete their previously negative reviews.”

Campaigning for Rave Reviews
Last week, Businessweek took note of a curious ranking in central Florida. This area, of course, is where Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and several other premier tourist attractions are located. And yet, according to TripAdvisor reviewers, the most popular tourism attraction not only in Orlando but for all of Florida is the Stetson Mansion, an obscure 10,000-square-foot 19th century home once owned by the man credited with inventing the cowboy hat.

As you might expect, when guests have a nice time visiting the mansion, they’re asked to offer their thoughts (and a five-star rating, hopefully) at TripAdvisor—which became a phenomenon as a hotel review site but has dramatically increased attraction reviews in recent years. No one has been suspected of fraudulently penning reviews of the Stetson Mansion, but it says something that Yelp discourages businesses from soliciting reviews in the manner of the mansion, due to the feeling that actively asking customers to post their opinions taints the process. (It’s not like restaurants or businesses would be asking unhappy customers to write reviews, now would they?) There are also bizarre instances of hotels having so many reviews that researchers assume the management has been attempting to game the system. How? Among other things, they ask favorite guests to flood the site with five-star reviews, with the hopes that they drown out the comparatively small number of negative reviews.

Writing Blatantly Fake Reviews
For a while, the fake review business operated pretty much out in the open, with entrepreneurial, ethically questionable individuals offering their opinions (and five-star ratings) to any business that forked over a few bucks. Just last summer,, the car-research site, sued a company that spammed its user review section with fraudulent reviews of car dealerships.

Hotel staffers have been busted writing reviews that praise their establishment and criticize the competition, and Yelp once unearthed a conspiracy of local businesses that agreed to post positive reviews of each other to collectively boost their ratings. A cat-and-mouse game has developed, in which fake reviewer accounts are banned from the sites, prompting them to create new accounts, attempt to post at other sites, and otherwise continue to manipulate ratings. It’s enough for some consumer groups to give review sites awful reviews themselves.

Blackmailing on the Behalf of Reviewers
It’s not just the businesses that are trying to work the user review system. Reviewers themselves have been known to act in a way that’ll make you question the validity of any opinions you read online. “Yelpers don’t have any professional protocol,” David Chang, the celebrity chef in charge of Momofuku explained recently to FiveThirtyEight. “They sit down and say, ‘If you don’t do this, we’re going to give you a bad Yelp score.’ We’re like, what the f***?” (For that matter, Chang had little good to say about the quality and trustworthiness of legitimate Yelp reviews: “I’m just going to come out and say: Most of the Yelp reviews are wrong. They just are.”)

The (UK) Telegraph reported earlier this year that there has been a huge rise in restaurant, B&B, and hotel owners being blackmailed by customers. Essentially, they’ve been threatening that if they don’t receive free food or wine, or perhaps a discount on their room rate, they’ll bash the establishment in a TripAdvisor review. This week, wrote that Yelp should reconsider its “Elite Yelper” program—in which frequent raters are given free swag and other perks—because quantity of reviews does not equate to quality, and because it opens up the door to businesses trying to bribe the elites in order to secure better reviews.

In early 2013, one company even created a frequent reviewer $100 membership program, complete with a card the user could flash when asking for a table at a restaurant or checking into a hotel. The idea was that showing such a card—dubbed “the douche card” by one pithy online commenter—would give you premium service. But what it really did was serve as a subtle threat to the business: Give me the best, or I will give you a horrible online review.

Giving Preferential Treatment to Advertisers
Over the years, the most common complaint about Yelp by businesses is that it basically forces them into advertising on the site. Doing so helps push the business up to the top of review pages, and failure to pay up allegedly means that sometimes a business’s positive reviews are harder for Yelp users to see. Yelp has always disputed this characterization, but this past spring, the FTC announced that thousands of businesses have filed complaints against Yelp for its passive-aggressive advertising sales push.


Thousands May Get Refunds on Undeserved Red-Light Camera Tickets

Red light camera

For years, Chicago and other cities have used red-light camera tickets to juice revenues. Soon, it looks like some of that money will be headed back into the bank accounts of drivers.

While countless drivers may very well feel like they have been given red-light camera traffic tickets without justification—and many would love to see these cameras disappear entirely—a new investigation apparently reveals that thousands and thousands of drivers in the Chicago area have proof that they were hit with tickets and fines they didn’t deserve.

The Chicago Tribune recently analyzed some 4 million tickets doled out via red-light camera surveillance since 2007. What researchers found has alarmed drivers and given conspiracy theorists fresh ammunition about Big Brother police tactics and even corruption regarding city contracts and roadside cameras in general. The paper found several instances of sudden inexplicable spikes in the number of tickets generated by cameras. Seemingly out of nowhere, cameras that usually captured a handful of infractions daily were generating dozens of tickets per day, sometimes for a couple of weeks, before returning to the normal pattern.

City officials and traffic experts haven’t been able to explain these sudden surges in tickets—tens of thousands of which investigators have deemed “questionable”—and the Tribune’s analysis concluded that there is “clear evidence” that they came about due to “faulty equipment, human tinkering or both.”

One example, for example, generated a dozen tickets to drivers rolling through right-hand turns for six months in 2011, and then produced 560 tickets for that same infraction over one 12-day period. The assumption is that someone or something changed how the rule was being enforced over that span, and no other bothered to inform drivers.

The traffic experts asked to look over the Tribune’s research announced right away that all drivers given undeserved $100 tickets should receive speedy refunds without hassle or the need to petition. Now those experts are being joined by several Chicago aldermen, who this week called on City Hall to launch its own investigation—and to hand out refunds whenever appropriate. Another Tribune story quoted one of the city leaders making the case for drivers:

“We want to find out what went wrong, and we want to see refunds where the ticket was wrongly issued,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. “That would be the way to do it. The basis would be refunds in cases where tickets were wrongly issued.”

What exactly happened to cause these odd sudden surges in cameras generating tickets? Unless the machines truly are taking over, it would seem all but certain that some human element was involved. It wouldn’t be the first time that something underhanded has happened with red-light cameras. Last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to drop the contract with Redflex, the company then operating the city’s roadside cameras, after a $2 million bribery scheme involving Redflex and a city official overseeing the camera program was brought to light.

While Chicago drivers have a right to feel road rage about its camera system, which appears to be corrupt, incompetent, or both, the fines they’re paying are chump change compared with some of the camera-generated tickets handed out in northern California—which sometimes amount to $480 after all the fees are added up. One notorious roadside camera in Oakland, Calif., hit drivers to the tune of $4.2 million in tickets in 2010 alone.

Scott Waguespack, the Chicago alderman, told the Tribune that he and many others have complained over the years to transportation officials that traffic lights turn from yellow to red much too quickly. But no one did anything about it. “They were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything is cool,’” Waguespack said. “Well, clearly it wasn’t.”

Not only are city leaders calling for an investigation and refunds, but several lawyers are now in the process of gathering affected drivers for a class-action suit, or perhaps several suits.

That may be one reason why many cities have decided to do away with roadside cameras all together. Several San Diego County cities, for instance, pulled the plug on their roadside camera programs in recent months. The number of U.S. cities with roadside cameras is on the decline too, from 540 in 2012 to 508 this year. Depending on how things play out in Chicago and in other cities where drivers are protesting roadside cameras, that number could keep on falling.

TIME Security

Facebook and Twitter Users: Don’t Fall for MH17 ‘Actual Footage’ Scams

Be very careful which MH17 news stories you click on, especially on Facebook and Twitter, where scammers are exploiting the tragedy to spam you.

If you run across Facebook pages touting pictures of Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash victims, or tweets linking to reports on the disaster, warning: they may be fakes, harbor malware or redirect you to pornographic websites.

The BBC reports that fraudsters are exploiting the tragic destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, ostensibly shot down by a ground to air missile on July 17, by bait-and-switching users with promises of shocking video footage or tribute pages to victims that instead link viewers to spam or other offensive content.

In one instance, a Facebook page was created the day the plane crashed that purported to have video footage of the crash itself, says the Daily Mail. Clicking the link promising the video redirected viewers to a spam site, which of course contained no such video. The Facebook page has since been removed, but security expert TrendMicro, which blogged about some of this cybercriminal activity on July 18, expects MH17 exploitation to continue.

In other instances, as noted by TrendMicro, people may be using the tragedy to boost web traffic, posting suspicious tweets with links to malicious sites harboring malware, but also seemingly legitimate ones in hopes of “gaining hits/page views on their sites or ads.”

So beware and think before you click, especially if you see claims like “Video Camera Caught the moment plane MH17 Crash over Ukraine” (as noted by the BBC). There is no such video, and the chances are all but certain you’re being gamed based on someone’s perverse attempt to mine an unspeakable calamity. What you can do, on the other hand, is report such suspicious activity to Twitter or Facebook.


First State Sues Over Student Loan Fraud

The most frustrating part: Legitimate debt relief similar to that offered by bogus debt consolidators is usually available at no cost to borrowers.


On Monday, Illinois became the first state to sue so-called debt settlement companies for fraudulent student loan practices. The New York Times reports that two companies, Broadsword Student Advantage and First American Tax Defense, were sued for charging customers for debt assistance they never received.

Debt settlement companies, which consumers pay for help consolidating their loans and decreasing their monthly payments, have long had a reputation for taking advantage of desperate borrowers eager for a quick fix. With Americans now holding $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans, college grads appear to be an increasingly attractive target.

According to court documents, the typical scam involves offering debtors a variety of services—some non-existent, some that are already offered free through federal programs—in exchange for money up front. First American even made up fake government relief initiatives—like the “Obama Forgiveness Program”— to entice customers, and feigned affiliation with the Department of Education. Rick Cibelli, an Illinois caregiver, told the Times he payed First American $175 over the phone to help pay down his $10,000 of student debt before learning the company’s purported federal connections were false.

The most frustrating part of debt relief fraud is that a legitimate version of the services offered by scammers are usually available at no cost to borrowers. Common student loan scams include offering to consolidate student loan payments (putting multiple loans under one lower monthly fee), debt forgiveness, or lower monthly payments. All of these services are offered free of charge by the Department of Education to eligible borrowers.

Persis Yu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center’s Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says she’s never seen a loan assistance company offer anything that isn’t already offered by the federal government. “The bottom line is they’re charging you for information you can get for free,” says Yu. In a 2013 report, the National Consumer Law Center found some student loan relief agencies charged up to $1,600, or $20 to $50 a month, for what amounts to filling out a few forms.

Yu believes that the primary cause of student loan relief fraud is a failure to educate the public about current government options. “There is an information vacuum, which I think is one of the reason why these companies have been successful,” laments Yu. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, agrees. He advocates legislation that would require debt settlement agencies to clearly and conspicuously disclose that the services they offer can be also be obtained for free. “There’s nothing illegal about charging a fee for a free service,” said Kantrowitz “but when it strays into the realm of being misleading about what you’re charging a fee for, that becomes problematic.” Similar legislation already exists for companies that help families file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Luckily, careful borrowers can avoid a scam. Yu says that anyone looking for student loan assistance should contact the servicer of their loan directly to discuss their available options. Any program not referred to them by the loan servicer should be considered highly suspect. Those with older loans granted under the Federal Family Education Loan program should also be careful when speaking to their lender about consolidation because these lenders are not required to disclose government consolidation options.

Unfortunately, outside of your current lender, there are precious few reliable resources for those with student debt. “We have had instances where borrowers who do contact their services don’t get the best information, so it’s incumbent on borrowers to get the best information,” Yu said.

One good resource is the NCLC’s own website,, which offers trustworthy advice on loan repayment options, as does The Department of Education also offers excellent online materials, like a fact sheet on loan consolidation, including how to apply for a consolidated loan. The same site also explains various term-extension options, including a calculator that will use your income, loan amount, and interest payment to estimate how much you would pay per month and in total under various repayment plans. The Department of Educations also maintains a toll-free number, 1-800-4-FEDAID, that offers loan information.

Public sector workers, or those who meet various other conditions, may be eligible for forgiveness, cancellation, or discharge of their loan. This page explains the various requirements and how to take advantage of any programs you qualify for.

There are also a number of private refinancing options that can lower long-term interest payments. Matt Krupnick of the Hechinger Report writes that companies like Pave and CommonBond offer certain graduates advantages like flexible loans or low-interest payments. Kantrowitz says these loans can be great options for graduates who have good jobs and high credit scores, but are generally unavailable to borrowers struggling to meet their current payments.

Yu also cautions that while private refinancing can mean lower rates, it also means losing many federal protections, like forgiveness in the case of disability or death, or government income-based repayment plans. “If someone is going to consider refinancing, they need to know they will lose their rights under a federal loan,” said Yu. “That will have to be a cost-benefit analysis.”


5 Changes That Could Make City Parking Less of a Living Hell

Double-parked cars on an alternate-side parking day
Double-parked cars on an alternate-side parking day, which takes place for street cleaning, in New York, June 16, 2014. A proposal to allow drivers to return to parking spaces once street sweepers pass has set off a fevered debate. Andrew Renneisen—The New York Times via Redux

There is a special place in hell for people who craft parking policies and create confusing signs in order to maximize revenues collected from tickets.

In New York City last week, discussion was under way concerning a suggested change to the maddening alternate-side parking rules, which regularly cause drivers to move their vehicles to allow for street sweeping. Because parking is banned on one side of the street for 90 minutes, drivers are forced to wait in their cars, typically double-parked, even after the street sweepers have come and gone. Leaving a vehicle unattended even a few minutes before the official parking ban is over can mean getting hit with a hefty ticket.

Members of New York’s city council have proposed a reform that would give drivers the OK to park as soon as street sweepers have passed, thereby saving some time and hassle for harried New Yorkers who can’t afford exorbitant private parking facilities. But given objections from the mayor and the Sanitation Department, which have voiced concerns that the changes would make it more difficult to clean streets, the reform is hardly a done deal.

Here are a few other ideas that could make life easier—or at least less mind-numbingly aggravating—for drivers driven nuts by parking policies in cities around the country:

Simplify the Signage
As one driver recently found out in Washington, D.C., parking signs on the same street can be contradictory, and you can still be fined even when you follow the rules posted on the sign nearest your vehicle. Is it too much to ask of cities to make sure that signs on the same street are on the same page?

For that matter, the verbiage, color coding, and symbols on parking signs can often be overwhelming and confusing. New York City took some steps to simplify the message, with signs introduced in 2013 that use no more than 140 characters to explain parking rules, down from as many as 250 characters and three different colors in the past. Even so, some say that shorter signs aren’t necessary clearer signs. “Just because the signs are prettier and easier to read doesn’t mean they’re clearer,” Glen Bolofsky, president of the New Jersey-based ticket fighting service told reporters when New York tweaked its signage. “The new signs leave out too much information.”

A less confusing parking sign created by New York designer Nikki Sylianteng has been making the rounds online for months, but so far no city has adopted the system, which uses simple colors (red=no parking, green=OK to park) to clue drivers in. The progress of Sylianteng’s suggested “urban intervention project,” as it’s called, can be followed at

Crack Down on Fake Disabled Parking Placards
The fact that a site with the url exists tells you that there’s a national epidemic of horrible people. The site was created, as you’d probably guess, because the truly “disabled have run out of places to park, as their designated handicapped parking spaces are being taken by fraudulent individuals.” Drivers are encouraged to shame abusers, who obviously hurt the disabled by taking their rightful parking spots, but who also affect local city revenues (because they’re not paying to park like they should) and make life more difficult for pretty much anyone trying to find a parking space.

Countless cases of fake disabled parking placards have been chronicled over the years, with some calling for disabled parking privileges to be eliminated entirely. New Jersey, for one, made it more difficult for drivers to get hold of disabled placards, with a requirement to verify one’s status as disabled every three years. In Washington state, where more than 700,000 drivers have disabled parking placards, discussions are in the works to get rid of the main perk they allow: free parking at metered spots. Rescinding the privilege would certainly reduce fraud, but it wouldn’t do much to help disabled drivers who rely on the help.

Let Drivers Pay Meters by Smartphone App
While fishing around in a car to find quarters to pay the meter, many a driver has been struck by the idea What year is this, 1995? We live in an era when a “smart thermostat” will automatically turn the heat on and off with almost no effort on the behalf of the homeowner, yet drivers still must physically feed parking meter with coins—and then go back in person to feed them again when the time’s about the expire.

So it’s good to see that a wide range of cities, including Arlington, Va., Chicago, and and even Great Falls, Mont., are embracing parking payments by smartphone app.

Boston drivers should also be able to stop scrounging for quarters this fall, when the technology is expected to be introduced. Not that it really needs to be spelled out, but interim Transportation Commissioner James Gillooly explained to the Boston Globe why it makes so much sense to allow drivers to pay for parking without having to resort to quarters: “Two things people have in their pockets: They have a credit card. And they have a cellphone.”

On the other hand, they don’t necessarily have quarters—or the patience to find them.

Embrace and Promote “Robin Hooding”
Wouldn’t it be great if somebody went around feeding about-to-expire parking meters with quarters, so cars wouldn’t be ticketed? Well, that’s exactly what a group of “Robin Hooders” in Keene, NH, have been doing for years. ” If your meter is expired, Robin Hood and the Merry Men and Women will place a coin into the meter to extend your time, presuming we reach the meter before the King’s enforcers,” the group’s site explains.

The group found itself in hot water—and the subject of national attention—when the city of Keene sued, saying that the merry band of Robin Hooders “taunted, interfered with, harassed and intimated the Parking Enforcement Officers.” One of the officers said he had “begun to suffer physical effects due to the stress…and having dreams related to this activity.”

The case was dismissed by a judge last December, and it looks like the Robin Hooders are in the clear. Similar cases, in Eugene, Oregon, for instance, has also led to acquittals for individuals paying for the parking meters of strangers.

That’s great for the Robin Hooders, and for the people whose cars aren’t being ticketed thanks to their efforts. Then again, it’s probably not so good for drivers who are frustrated in their search for parking spots because no one is worried enough about the risk of being ticketed to leave them.

TIME Odd Spending

6 Mother’s Day Factoids to Show You’re Not a Horrible, Ungrateful Son or Daughter

In advance of your Mother’s Day plans (or lack thereof) not going over well today, here’s some ammunition for making the case that you—and your mom—could have done a lot worse.

Moms get more love than dads. Or at least we spend a lot more on moms. According to the National Retail Federation, average household spending on Mother’s Day is roughly $50 higher than it is for Fathers Day.

Mother’s Day = Scam Day. The Better Business Bureau warns that consumers should “proceed with caution to avoid falling victim to a Mother’s Day scam,” which might consist of phony coupons and vouchers, a phishing e-mail, or an e-card of mysterious origin that is “as likely to contain destructive malware as warm wishes,” notes Consumer Reports. So if you’re desperate, you can use the possibility of a scam as an excuse for why you didn’t pony up and get mom a gift. You know: “Sorry, ma, just trying to save you from the horrors of identity theft.”

Thoughtful, hand-picked gifts are overrated. In a survey conducted on the behalf of PriceGrabber, the majority of consumers (60%) said they’d just order something online as a Mother’s Day gift. As for what moms want on Mother’s Day, 29% said they favored the not-remotely-personalized gift of a gift card, which was the second most common answer after a “gift” that doesn’t cost anything—spending quality time with one’s family (44%).

Mom would probably return whatever you picked anyway. Nine out of ten consumers polled by said they suspect that their mothers have returned or exchanged a Mother’s Day gift at least once. (Only 30% of the moms surveyed admitted to doing so, but what else do you think they would say.)

Tons of sons and husbands whip up plans at the last minute. Among the men polled by, 42% said they’ll make Mother’s Day plans only a few days beforehand or just throw something together on Mother’s Day itself. So you’re in good (or at least abundant) company if you’re totally winging it at the last minute. Just don’t be among the 6% of men who have forgotten about Mother’s Day altogether in the past.

Thousands must think moms really love beer and wings. Some 35,000 people reportedly brought their moms to Hooters last year on Mother’s Day. So on Sunday you can tell your mom, “Hey, at least I didn’t drag you to Hooters last year for your big day.” And if you did—hey, moms eat there free after all on Mother’s Day—at least you weren’t the only one.

TIME Transportation

There’s Just No Stopping Las Vegas Taxi Drivers from Overcharging Tourists

Spencer Platt—Getty Images

If you’ve been in Vegas and hopped in a taxi in recent years, there’s a good chance you’ve been “long hauled.”

“Long hauling” is the scam in which taxi drivers literally and figuratively take tourists for a ride—intentionally going the long route to a destination, thereby boosting the fare. Gripes about “long haul” schemes are nothing new. Stories have circulated involving passengers paying four times more than they should for rides, and taxi drivers themselves have been known to refer to the practice of long hauling as an “epidemic.”

Speaking to Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2012, one 14-year taxi veteran described long hauling as “becoming truly epidemic,” and explained how it’s evolved and drivers have grown bolder over the years: “Originally, you saw it from the airport to the hotels, but now it’s just as prevalent going back to the airport. People are coming up with more creative ways to take people on longer rides.”

Last spring, the results of a state audit were released, indicating that nearly one in four passengers (22.5%) were taken on longer-than-necessary rides by taxi drivers. Riders were overcharged by an estimated $14.8 million as a result in 2012 alone.

The report accompanying the audit stated that the practice would obviously put a bad taste in the mouth of the average taxi passenger (a tourist), and that doing so could be disastrous for a city that so heavily relies on tourists having a good time—and returning to do so again on repeat visits. “Taxicab trips are often the first and last experience tourists have in Las Vegas,” the report stated. “Therefore, long-hauling may result in tourists having a negative experience.”

(MORE: Pay No Attention to Money-Losing Casinos–and Let’s Build More Casinos!)

After the audit was made public, Las Vegas Sun columnist J. Patrick Coolican wrote that the influence of taxi companies prevented any serious crackdown on long hauling, and also held back other tourist-friendly initiatives in town. “Why do you think we don’t have light rail or some high-quality transit to and from the airport like so many other cities? It will never happen due to the power of the cab lobby,” he wrote. “The cabbies are just flat-out stealing, and our political system is so inept that it refuses or is unable to act.”

The authorities can’t be criticized for doing absolutely nothing about the issue, however. In 2012, Taxicab Authority enforcement officers—not members of the Las Vegas Police Department—set up checkpoints and began citing drivers engaged in long hauling, though only after an initial briefing period in which no one was penalized. Undercover officers also took rides in taxis and were long hauled with astonishing frequency, roughly one out of every three trips.

In January 2014, officials unveiled signs at the airport spelling out approximately how much passengers should pay and how long a taxi ride should take on trips to the Strip or downtown. That way, tourists should at least be aware of when a driver is trying to pull a fast one—or slow one, to be more accurate. It might also cause drivers to think twice before attempting to take advantage of tourists, who at least in theory are less clueless now.

This week, however, the Review-Journal reported that a range of policies and bureaucratic red tape, as well as conflicts of interest, result in officers rarely ever citing taxi drivers for long hauling. Anonymous investigators employed by the Nevada Taxicab Authority—the agency responsible for enforcing regulations against long hauling—complained of being undermanned and overwhelmed with an absurd amount of pointless paperwork, to the point that few had much time in the field enforcing the law. The investigators spoke anonymously out of fear of retribution, and they said that the policies and agency culture have been intentionally hindering them from doing their jobs.

(MORE: Sin City Meets the Low Rollers)

What’s more, secret conversations recorded inside the authority’s offices have come to light in which the agency’s chief investigators discuss the need to avoid being “heavy-handed” in its enforcement, so as not to anger the cab companies, “who oversee our day-to-day operations.” The central problem seems to be that if the agency sees itself as working for the cab companies and their drivers, then they’re not working for the taxi passengers potentially being scammed by … the cab companies and their drivers.

TIME Scams

The 10 Weirdest Things Thieves Love to Steal

Thieves won't always steal the possessions you would expect.
Thieves won't always steal the possessions you would expect. Pierre Wayser—Getty Images/Flickr Select

Today in 'wtf crime'

This post is in partnership with 24/7 Wall Street. The article below was originally published on

Cars, smartphones, jewelry and cash are among the many valuable items most people expect thieves to target. As a result, Americans take precautions to keep such possessions safe. Not many, however, would think to lock up their Nutella, pregnancy tests or Tide laundry detergent. Yet, these everyday, ordinary household products are among the most commonly stolen goods.

Some stolen items seem unusual because their value is not easily visible. For example, thieves steal catalytic converters for the platinum. Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) gave the example of manhole covers, as well as a variety of other metal objects, that are often stolen to be resold as scrap metal. Incidents of these kinds of theft have risen considerably, likely due to the rising price of metals like copper, and platinum.

Similarly, the production of maple syrup relies heavily on weather patterns. With poor sugaring conditions in recent years, the price of sap and maple syrup have risen considerably, increasing the potential reward for thieves targeting the product. Another grocery item, steak, has also become more vulnerable to shoplifting due to rising prices.

Another explanation for unusual incidents of theft is unmet demand. In the case of shrubbery theft, for example, collectors are willing to pay large sums for rare and valuable plants –even illegally. Nutella, which is relatively expensive and in high demand, is a commonly stolen product, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

According to Rich Mellor, senior advisor at the National Retail Federation (NRF), the “easiest thing to steal is getting stolen, not necessarily for its desirability.” So, while intrinsic value and price increases are important factors, a thief ultimately wants to avoid getting caught.

24/7 Wall St. consulted the National Retail Federation and the National Insurance Crime Bureau to identify a variety of commonly stolen objects. We also reviewed various news sources to identify 10 of the strangest things thieves steal.

Here are the 10 weirdest things thieves steal.

1. Laundry detergent

Procter & Gamble and Arm & Hammer are not the only ones to discover the value in laundry detergent. Thieves have too. This relatively expensive everyday household product is found in nearly every home, which can partly explain its appeal as a stolen good. Consistent demand makes a product much easier to sell. In particular, Tide — a recognized, easy to spot brand — is traded on a regular basis for drugs, other illicit items, and sometimes right back to stores looking for better profit margins. Additionally, the lack of serial numbers on the packaging makes detergents very difficult to track.

2. Allergy medicine

Among organized retail crime gangs allergy medicines in particular have become quite popular, according to a 2013 crime survey conducted by the NRF. Part of the value of allergy medications may be the consistently high demand for the product, as many people suffer from allergies. According to Rich Muller at the NRF, however, people are often more willing to suffer through allergy symptoms than buy antihistamines. As a result, a cheaper, boosted product has more success among consumers. While recreational use of antihistamines could be another explanation, stolen allergy medicines are re-sold primarily for intended use.

3. Pregnancy tests

Pregnancy tests were among the most shoplifted items last year, according to the NRF. Younger thieves may lift pregnancy tests to avoid embarrassment. According to the NRF, however, the tests are targeted by organized crime groups for their resale value. Like detergent, demand for this product is so consistent that they can be sold for near-retail prices.

4. Catalytic converters

Among the base metals popular at scrap yards are platinum, rhodium and palladium, all of which can be components in catalytic converters. The price of these metals has risen considerably in recent years, which may partly explain the rise in catalytic converter theft. Platinum prices, for example, have risen substantially, from around $1,000 per ounce five years ago to just under $1,400 per ounce this month. Catalytic converter theft has become so widespread in places like California, that the state passed laws that mandate documentation of the car part’s sales. According to Frank Scafidi of the NICB, however, there is only so much legislation can do without proper enforcement. Recyclers can easily recognize when they are dealing with criminals, but have little incentive to turn them away.

5. Manhole covers

Weighing more than 300 pounds in some cases, and typically located on lit and visible streets, manhole covers do not seem like a worthwhile steal at first. But in the last few years, as base metal prices have risen, so have thefts of manhole covers. Thieves have been known to disguise themselves as construction workers and make off with the large discs single-handedly. In countries such as Colombia, where stealing manhole covers has become quite common, thieves have customized trucks with holes in the floors to steal the covers more discreetly. In addition to the costs incurred by utilities and municipalities from these thefts, missing manhole covers cause considerable danger to the public. Relatively high prices for base metals such as iron have encouraged thieves to commit a variety of other unusual crimes, including the theft of fire hydrant caps, gravesite vases, and stadium bleachers, likely to be sold for scrap. Manhole covers are typically made of iron, while many other valued items contain copper, also coveted among thieves, as its price has roughly doubled since 2009. The metal is essential in plumbing, electrical systems, and fiber optics.

For the rest of the list, click here.

Read more from 24/7 Wall Street:
Ten Brands That Will Disappear in 2014
Five Unusual Alternatives to Investing in Gold
America’s Least Healthy States

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