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Thou Shalt Not Engage in Counter-Economics

• Las Vegas Review Journal

Meet Delinda Epstein.

This 51-year-old woman enjoyed a comfortable life a couple of years ago. She lived in a Summerlin townhouse, owned a brand new truck and worked as an administrator for a Henderson construction company.

But she lost her job. Not enough business at the company. She couldn\'t make the payments on her truck and lost that too. Her $1,300-a-month rent was overwhelming so she moved into a small apartment in a sketchy part of town.

Things were about to get worse. She was about to become a target of the Nevada Transportation Authority.

It started when, struggling to make rent, Epstein hatched a plan. Why not offer to help others while making some cash herself?

"All I wanted to do is make a buck; my life had been hell," she said.

Her Craigslist ad posted online in late August read: "Are you looking to spend less time cleaning, shopping and running errands or any of the small minute things that interrupt your busy schedule/life? I can help!" Transportation was one of the services she offered.

She received a call from Richie, a businessman who needed a ride from McCarran International Airport to Rhodes Ranch. The two agreed on a $30 fee.

On Sept. 3, she pulled up to the curb at passenger pick-up. She was driving her 2006 Hyundai Elantra, which she had bought using a loan secured through a second-chance financing business.

But "Richie" wasn\'t interested in a ride. He was an undercover agent with the Transportation Authority. The agency was targeting motorists offering transportation, a service allowed only to be provided by licensed transit companies and individuals.

As he settled in the passenger seat, a badge-bearing colleague knocked on Epstein\'s window.

"I\'m thinking, \'Oh my God, do I have a terrorist in my car?\'" Epstein said.

Epstein said Richie later explained the state agency was targeting drivers, some of whom illegally make as much as $5,000 a month ferrying passengers from the airport. But on this day their catch was Epstein, her hair in a clip, wearing jeans and flip-flops, driving her Elantra, and asking 30 bucks for an 11-mile drive.

Oblivious that it was illegal to offer rides to strangers, Epstein begged for a warning. She couldn\'t afford her rent, let alone fines.

"He (Richie) said it was too late to warn me," Epstein said. "He said, \'No, once we start the sting there is nothing we can do.\'"

Epstein was stung all right. Initially her fine was $3,800, but it has preliminarily been knocked down to $250. Her car was impounded. She was told the processing fee would be $250 and $40 for each day it\'s in the lot.

"I relinquished my car; I had to, there was no way I could pay to get it out," she said.

Now Epstein relies on the bus system. To top it off, the Transportation Authority is forcing her to get rid of the cell phone number she\'s had for a decade because it was used in an illegal scheme. So much for the contact number left on hundreds of job applications she has disseminated.

"I\'ve been so stressed," Epstein said.

Learn from Delinda Epstein.

In Nevada, it\'s illegal to offer passenger transportation, moving services, storage or towing if you do not hold a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN). Whether you are after $30 or trying to rake in thousands, the agency will not be too sympathetic.

"We\'re not heartless, but we do feel a lot of passion for protecting the public and that\'s what we\'re charged to do," said Marilyn Skibinski, deputy commissioner for the authority.

For the good of the tourism industry and the city\'s reputation, the agency wants to eliminate unlicensed, uninsured limo drivers who have failed to undergo background checks.

"If I flew into Las Vegas and got into a limo, I would assume that if it\'s operating, someone was making sure these safety requirements were being met," Skibinski said.

Maybe so, but would one really expect that if they dialed up a Craigslist advertiser offering to not only provide transportation, but to iron your clothes, clean your house, wrap gifts or grocery shop?

"As sympathetic as I could feel, she (Epstein) at the very least knew she was operating without a business license."

The authority also wants to ensure that licensed businesses, legitimate cabbies and limo drivers are not undercut by illegal operations. Understandable. But no warning before a citation?

"A $250 fine probably seems huge to her (Epstein), but it\'s actually very small," Skibinski said. "Our object is for the behavior not to occur and the public to be safe, not to go out and trick people to make a bunch of money."

A bunch of money is, of course, relative. And to Epstein that\'s exactly what $250 is. Consider that she abandoned a 3-year-old car when she couldn\'t come up with about that much.

"I\'ve been hanging on by a thread," she said. "Just hanging by a thread."

 

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