As many British Columbians anxiously await the arrival of Uber and other ride-hailing apps in the province, a handful of companies have already started picking up passengers illegally in the Lower Mainland.

Among them is the Chinese-language Udi Kuaiche, which operates much the same way Uber does, through an app that lets users search for nearby rides on a map then pay with their cellphone once they've reached their destination.

It's unclear how long the Richmond-based service has been active, but one driver who spoke with an undercover CTV News employee said he believes Udi Kuaiche launched in March.

Asked whether he was making good money working for the company, he said, "Not too much. They have to take the commission."

Ride-hailing rates are usually cheaper than cabs, and Udi Kuaiche is no exception. The app estimated the price of a trip from Queen Elizabeth Park to downtown Vancouver at $17, roughly $10 less than a taxi would cost.

But the Vancouver Taxi Association warned that discount comes with potential risks – particularly when the apps aren't even licensed.

"The reason they can afford to be cheaper is they don't have to [charge] any of the regulated fares, they don't have to pay any of the regulated insurance premiums, they don't have to have inspections on the vehicles," said Carolyn Bauer, a spokesperson for the association. "This is just hitchhiking."

All taxi drivers must also undergo criminal background checks in B.C.

The Ministry of Transportation confirmed it's aware of unlicensed ride-hailing companies operating in the Lower Mainland, and that staff are investigating.

"Given this investigation, further details about the companies or the drivers can't be provided," a spokesperson said in an email.

Employees of scofflaw ride-hailing companies face stiff penalties, according to the ministry. Drivers who are caught operating without a passenger transportation licence can be fined a whopping $1,150. 

Christy Clark's now-ousted Liberal government announced earlier this year that it would welcome ride-hailing into the province by the 2017 holiday season, giving passengers an alternative to taxis during one of the busiest times of year. The NDP, which is now set to form government, has promised to bring the service in by the end of the year as well. 

With files from CTV Vancouver's Jon Woodward