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THE UBER DRIVER: TRANSPORTER OR FELON FOR HIRE?

"Janet (name is fictional for confidentiality reasons) let me recap our conversation to make sure that I fully understand your situation. On Saturday evening around 11:30 p.m. you were celebrating a birthday of a co-worker at a hotel bar in Los Angeles. A fellow employee who gave you a ride to the bar had left early leaving you without a ride home. Because you were intoxicated and didn't want to bother your fellow co-workers for a ride home, you decided to use the Uber app on your cell phone.

During your ride home, you stated that the Uber driver engaged you in a conversation that had sexual overtones and you became worried for your safety. Upon arriving at your home, the Uber driver asked for your cell phone number and inquired if he could call you."

This was an actual call that we received at our Los Angeles office at Sunset Blvd. Investigations, Inc. (SBI) this year. Unfortunately it wasn't the first call either. During that past three years, we've received numerous calls from clients who felt they were verbally victimized by Uber drivers. Some of those calls originated in New York, Chicago, and even Sweden from tourists who used their Uber apps to help maneuver them through the streets of Los Angeles during business trips and vacations.

When you use a smartphone app like Uber, you're undoubtedly thinking about the convenience of summoning a quick ride that costs less than a taxi cab to get you to where you're going -- not about who'll be behind the driver's wheel, if the car is safe, or what kind of insurance the driver has.

The haunting questions are: Why would you get into a total stranger's car that you know nothing about? Why would you let that person transport you to whatever destination you need to go (which often times are directly to your home)? Does pressing an app really make you feel safe? Why not use a licensed taxi cab company that truly vets their employees?

Do you really think these drivers have gone through a comprehensive background check from a reputable agency? If you do, well, you're wrong.

Uber's website states that their drivers undergo a background investigation, but what exactly are their criteria? Does Uber take the time to vet these drivers to ascertain if they're really giving a correct name, date of birth, and social security number? Does anyone from Uber actually meet these drivers for an in-person interview? The answer is NO!

It's a known fact that taxi companies conduct a more extensive review of their prospective drivers. They utilize fingerprint checks and a governmental criminal records check that Uber doesn't employ, and they require their drivers to take a driver safety course in addition to a written exam.

If you don't spend much time in cabs, you may not have noticed that there's a battle unfolding on the streets of American cities and abroad, and it is progressively getting uglier. The fight is between taxi drivers and the app-based car service, Uber.

Taxi unions in cities such as Boston, Denver, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles just to mention a few, are not thrilled with the rapid explosion of Uber's popularity.

Uber Technologies, Inc. is an American international transportation network company headquartered in San Francisco, California. The company develops, markets, and operates the Uber mobile app, which allows consumers with smartphones to submit a trip request. Their requests are then routed to nearby Uber drivers who use their own cars. As of May 2015, the service was available in 57 countries and 300 cities worldwide. According to a Bloomberg Business article posted on May 8, 2015, Uber has been valued at $40 billion and is continuing to expand their operations to cities across the globe.

Uber offers several levels of service: Black, SUV, UberX, and Taxi. Black and SUV are meant to act like upscale taxi services, but are the two that compete most directly with the industry. Uber Taxi and UberX are Uber's lower-cost ridesharing services, and are in far fewer cities than the first two. However, all Uber drivers use their personal vehicles and are less regulated than any of the other ridesharing apps.

Uber makes headlines around the world, but not in a good way:

Boston:

Another Uber Driver Arrested For Sexual Assault

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/03/are-taxis-safer-than-uber/386207/

By Adrienne LaFrance and Rose Eveleth/ Mar 3, 2015

That was one of the headlines when a Boston woman reported her driver "indecently touched her several times" last month, according to the Boston Police Department. Such incidents seem frighteningly common now. In the past year alone, there have been several high-profile reports of drivers attacking passengers of ridesharing services like Uber. In the United States, there were assaults reported in Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Oklahoma, Los Angeles, and Orlando.

Houston:

Uber's Background Checks Don't Catch Criminals

http://www.cnet.com/news/ubers-background-checks-dont-catch-criminals-says-houston/

By Dara Kerr /April 17, 2015

Last week saw the latest story about an Uber driver for all the wrong reasons. The newest incident happened in Houston, where an Uber driver allegedly took a drunk female passenger to his home and raped her. The driver, Duncan Eric Burton, 57, is an ex-con. He'd spent 14 years in federal prison on drug charges and was released in 2012, according to the Houston Chronicle. And he had cleared Uber's background check.

How does that happen? The city of Houston believes Uber's background checks aren't thorough enough. That's why Houston is among the few cities to require every Uber driver to be licensed by the city and undergo FBI fingerprint checks. But while the city requires it, Uber doesn't -- allowing people to still drive for the ride-hailing service as long as the authorities don't catch them.

"Not all background checks are created equal," said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director to the City of Houston's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. "It's easy to lie about your name, it's easy to lie about your social security number, and it's easy to lie about where you've lived. Your fingerprints are tied to you."

Case in point: One applicant who cleared Uber's background checks had 24 alias names, five listed birth dates, 10 listed social security numbers and an active warrant for arrest, according to a report released last week by Houston's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

California:

Uber Driver Arrested in San Francisco Crash That Killed 6 Year Old Girl

December 2014- By Chase Cain - NBC Bay Area

A driver with the San Francisco ridesharing service Uber was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter for striking and killing a 6-year-old girl in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood on New Year's Eve, police and company officials said Thursday.

Syed Muzaffar, 57, of Union City, was arrested following the death of 6-year-old Sophia Liu, who was struck as she crossed the street with her mother and brother at Polk and Ellis streets at about 8 p.m. Tuesday, police said.

Muzaffar was booked into custody on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, sheriff's spokeswoman Susan Fahey said.

Canada:

Uber Driver Accused of Sex Assault

May 20, 2015 - By Jenny Yuen, Toronto Sun

http://www.torontosun.com/2015/05/20/uber-driver-accused-of-sex-assault-in-vaughan

A Mississauga man driving an Uber private car has been accused of sexually assaulting a female passenger over the weekend. York Regional Police said a driver picked up three women after midnight Sunday at a Toronto nightclub and transported them to their homes in York Region….

Earlier this month, Co-op Cabs launched its #ChooseTaxi campaign, warning people of the safety risks of riding in an UberX car.

"One of the big things we're learning about the nightclubs in Toronto is they're teaming up with Uber and lining these cars up on the street and a lot of young women or men simply get in and they're under the assumption they're with an Uber driver," said Co-op spokesman Alex Pierson. "But you're getting into an unmarked vehicle, so you don't really know. It shows that you have to know the car you're getting into."

India:

Uber Driver Arrested in India for Allegedly Raping and Threatening to Stab Passenger

By Meredith Hoffman - December 7, 2014

https://news.vice.com/article/uber-driver-arrested-in-india-for-allegedly-raping-and-threatening-to-stab-passenger

An Uber cab driver in India has been arrested for allegedly raping and threatening his 27-year-old female passenger Friday night. The shocking incident in Delhi set off protests over the country's chronic sexual assaults, and raised questions about the security of the US-based taxi app.

The driver, 32-year-old Shiv Kumar Yadev, lacked both a driver's license and a GPS tracker, police told the Times of India, despite Uber's safety claims that they "thoroughly screen" every driver and conduct "ongoing reviews of drivers' motor vehicle records throughout their time with Uber."

She allegedly cried out for help but was in a remote area, and the driver then raped her, slapped her, and threatened to stab her. When she attempted to message a friend about the crime, he allegedly warned that he would kill her.

CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE— 2015-2016 REGULAR SESSION – ASSEMBLY BILL 24

On March 04, 2015 in Sacramento, CA, Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (Sherman Oaks) introduced a consumer protection and public safety bill to establish basic public safety standards for drivers of charter party carriers, such as limousines, buses, and transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft.

"Ridesharing is simply high-tech hitchhiking," stated Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian. "Consumers are being blindly picked-up by complete strangers and entrusting them with their safety. As a public servant, I want to ensure your driver gets you home safely through the enactment of common sense safety measures."

Uber and Lyft conduct their own private background checks. However, the San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon recently called Uber's criminal background checks "completely worthless."

AB 24 includes three core safety standards:

  • Department of Motor Vehicle Employer Pull Notice: The pull notice alerts employers immediately when an arrest for a DUI or a serious conviction has occurred.
  • Department of Justice Fingerprint Background Checks: DOJ fingerprint background checks rely on biometric verification and as a result, are the most comprehensive checks used across professions to ensure safety and consumer protection.
  • Random Drug Testing: Participate in a drug and alcohol testing program.

"Rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft that claim to be focused on consumer safety, should welcome and embrace the opportunity to show consumers how safe and friendly their drivers can be, while providing an affordable and technology-driven transportation service," stated Assemblymember Nazarian. "Who would be against making sure your driver is not a convicted felon or a reckless driver?"

In the few years that these companies have been operating, inadequacies in current regulations have resulted in several incidents including allegations of passenger harassment, kidnapping, violence, and even one fatality. Incidents like these are precisely why immediate action is required; the life and well-being of the public is too precious to leave in the care of companies that are not subject to the most basic safety standards.

Concluding Remarks:

I'll finish this blog with an old saying that goes, "Buyer beware!" Please, just use common sense as your life may depend on it. If you do decide to use ridesharing apps like Uber, then make sure you always let someone know your whereabouts. Take a screenshot of your driver's information (that shows their name, vehicle, and license plate), and text it to one of your friends. Let them know that you will text them when you get to your destination safely.

Always remember, when you're entering a stranger's vehicle, you already know that your intention is just to get a ride to your next destination. But you'll never know the driver's intentions until it's too late. So always be alert! Be safe!

The author of this blog Steve Polak, is a retired Los Angeles Police Dept. Detective with twenty-one years of law enforcement experience and over twenty years as a licensed private investigator in Los Angeles.

To contact Steve or his partner Randall Petee, who's a retired Los Angeles Sheriff's Dept. Detective, please visit any of the following links.

Sunset Blvd. Investigations, Inc. provides seasoned and effective private investigation services for clients throughout the United States and Internationally. If you're in need of a private investigator, we're here to assist you in any way we can. Call today at (888) 639-4761 to contact us and request a consultation!

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