The ad running on the back of cabs around Sydney, part of a campaign paid for by the NSW Taxi Council.
A campaign to convince people to use “Crime Stoppers-approved” taxi booking apps has backfired after it was revealed the key spokeswoman for Cabcharge and the NSW Taxi Council is the company secretary and director of Crime Stoppers NSW.
The campaign, running on the back of hundreds of Sydney cabs and in the media, is now the subject of complaints to the NSW Ombudsman, NSW Fair Trading Minister and the ACCC.
It's using a community group or having the front of a community group to protect certain parts of the taxi industryUniversity of Sydney economist Peter Abelson
Taxi industry vested interests such as Cabcharge and the NSW Taxi Council, which is run out of the Cabcharge head office, have been waging a campaign against apps such as GoCatch and Ingogo, which allow drivers and passengers to bypass taxi networks like Taxis Combined for bookings and payments.
"We believe [the campaign] has been driven by Cabcharge to protect their virtual monopoly" ... Ingogo managing director Hamish Petrie. Photo: Rob Homer
University of Sydney economist Peter Abelson, who has extensively researched the taxi industry, said that of the 10 apps promoted in the Crime Stoppers campaign, the majority were controlled by Cabcharge-owned Combined Communications Network and its close business affiliates, which in turn control more than 80 per cent of the cabs in Sydney.
The apps that are not aligned with the major taxi networks are an emerging threat to Cabcharge's virtual monopoly and have been portrayed as unsafe for passengers and even illegal.
Most people believe Crime Stoppers NSW is a NSW Police agency. Its logo is on every police car and media release and appears at every police press conference. NSW Police Force also runs the Crime Stoppers NSW anonymous tip line and appoints several of its directors, which include Assistant Commissioner Peter Barrie.
Ingogo provides Android smartphones with magnetic stripe readers to drivers allowing them to accept credit cards without using the Cabcharge system. Photo: Anna Zhu
But Crime Stoppers in NSW, and elsewhere in Australia, is a not-for-profit company that relies on licensing fees from private industry for most of its revenue.
Companies pay to use the Crime Stoppers logo in their marketing. These include security screen maker Crimsafe, which prominently displays the Crime Stoppers logo on its website next to its own logo, and lock maker Lockwood, which has also used the Crime Stoppers brand in its advertising.
While Crime Stoppers campaigns always have a crime-prevention angle, they further - and in some cases are driven by - commercial interests.
Three grabs of the GoCatch app which lets users pay by PayPal and credit card.
Tracey Cain, who has been quoted as a spokeswoman for the NSW Taxi Council since at least 1999 and Cabcharge since at least 2003, has been a director of Crime Stoppers NSW since July 2011 and was appointed the company secretary in September this year.
Her company Australian Public Affairs still handles public relations for both Cabcharge and the NSW Taxi Council. It also handles lobbying for both organisations as well as Crime Stoppers NSW, according to the federal government's lobbyist register.
A manager of Lockwood owner Assa Abloy is also a director of Crime Stoppers NSW.
Passengers can communicate directly with the driver and vice-versa.
Peter Price, director and chief executive of Crime Stoppers NSW, confirmed the NSW Taxi Council had paid a fee to attach the Crime Stoppers brand to its campaign and that Ms Cain had brought the opportunity to the Crime Stoppers NSW board. But he said Ms Cain was excluded from meetings about the deal.
Dr Abelson said there still appeared to be a conflict of interest.
“It's using a community group or having the front of a community group to protect certain parts of the taxi industry,” he said. “It's all a bit devious really and certainly not very transparent ... I thought it was a NSW Police Force activity and I'm sure that is the public perception.”
Ingogo managing director Hamish Petrie - who like competitor GoCatch was not given a chance to obtain Crime Stoppers endorsement before or after the campaign kicked off - has filed complaints with bodies including the NSW Ombudsman, ACCC and NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts.
He said in the complaints, seen by Fairfax Media, that the Crime Stoppers campaign was misleading and deceptive and the organisation was “masquerading as a public agency while doing the bidding of its commercial sponsors”.
Mr Petrie said drivers using his app must enter their taxi plate, validated mobile number and secure password to log in to Ingogo, and taxi drivers' licences and authorities were scanned in person at Ingogo's office.
Much of this detail is provided to the passenger, who must also provide identifying details, and the entire journey is logged using GPS.
“Ingogo can actually assist police and regulators with more detailed information than the [incumbent taxi] networks,” said Mr Petrie.
“It is blatantly clear their fear campaign against apps such as Ingogo is misleading, deceptive and a serious conflict of interest. We believe it has been driven by Cabcharge to protect their virtual monopoly.”
GoCatch and Ingogo have received hefty NSW and federal government grants, respectively.
At an event last week to launch GoCatch's payment system to rival that of Cabcharge, NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner came out in support of the taxi booking apps.
He told the Australian Financial Review that taxi networks should put up or shut up and should focus on delivering “better value to users”, who would then decide who would be successful.
In November, Fairfax Media reported that the O'Farrell government was considering smashing the virtual monopoly in the taxi industry by removing the law forcing taxi operators to join an “authorised” radio network, most of which are owned by Cabcharge and Premier. A decision is expected early next year.
Cabcharge and its various interests have been heavily lobbying the government against any changes to the status quo, arguing Sydney would look like Kampala, Uganda, and public safety would be in jeopardy.
In its latest available financial reports, for the year ended June 30, 2011, Crime Stoppers NSW earned $138,000 in licensing fees on top of $40,000 in government grants and $20,043 in sponsorships. In 2010 it generated $297,000 in licensing fees.
The organisation's operations are run by NSW Police and it does not have any employees, but in the 2011 financial year it paid Price $72,667 for his services as chief executive, plus $85,685 to Price's company First Light Group Pty Ltd.
NSW Police would not comment on the relative safety of the various taxi booking apps, but said in the last financial year there were 25,000 “valid contacts” to Crime Stoppers resulting in more than 17,000 intelligence reports being created.
It said the information obtained through Crime Stoppers directly led to the arrests of more than 270 people, the seizure of more than $25 million worth of drugs and the recovery of more than $500,000 worth of lost property.
NSW Police said information received through Crime Stoppers directly led to the arrest of two women for drug offences at Sydney Airport, including one with 1.5 kilograms of cocaine in her possession.
It said Crime Stoppers information had also led to the seizure in 2010 of a rare marmoset stolen from a wildlife park on the south coast, and in 2009 provided a crucial lead resulting in the arrest of a man wanted over a violent assault of a female police officer at Kings Cross.