updated 11/24/2009 6:10:04 PM ET 2009-11-24T23:10:04

With the holiday travel season gearing up, authorities are cracking down on the swarms of unlicensed taxi drivers who hustle passengers at New York City airports.

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Port officials and prosecutors announced Tuesday that police had arrested 17 men at Kennedy International Airport in an enforcement sweep timed to coincide with a new law imposing tougher penalties on unlicensed hacks. An 18th driver was arrested at LaGuardia Airport.

Under the new state law signed last month, the drivers could face up to 90 days in jail and fines as high as $1,250. Previously, violations usually resulted in the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said the new legislation "should go a long way toward putting an end to the days when airport hustlers accepted paying a minimal fine simply as a cost of doing business."

The crackdown takes aim at the small army of quick-talking drivers who approach passengers as they emerge from the terminals and offer them a ride into the city for an under-the-table fare, negotiated on the spot.

These trips aren't always a rip-off. Unlicensed drivers often charge equal to, or less than, the legal flat taxi rate of $45.50 (plus tolls) for all taxi trips between Manhattan and JFK.

But these unauthorized pickups can be problematic, too, especially when drivers come across someone who isn't familiar with the city or U.S. currency. One driver arrested Monday at JFK had offered an investigator a ride to Manhattan for $85.

In one case in June, a group of French tourists were effectively held hostage for a time as the unlicensed van that had picked them up at JFK was chased through the city by police.

Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward said enforcement of the law would keep "potentially dangerous" drivers off the streets, including those who lack proper insurance, while protecting the livelihood of those who do business legally.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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