Ed, 31, didn’t have much experience with Uber or Lyft until one strange day in 2017. (His name is not Ed. He wishes to remain anonymous. He does not look like an Ed—now that’s anonymity.)
Ed was with three or four friends on a bright Saturday morning on the way to a wedding. A buddy requested a ride on her phone, and voila: Uber said a black Plymouth was en route.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, a black Plymouth pulled up across the street. Ed was impressed. But then things got…a little weird. Scratch that—things got a lot weird.
The app’s screen showed the ride on the map right where the car appeared in the street. Yet rather than crossing over to pick the group up, the Plymouth swung a quick U-turn and sped away. Ed noticed that the car’s license plate was obscured with a smear of mud. What was up?
The friends were confused until their Lyft driver appeared (that’s the benefit of having a bunch of friends with smartphones; together, there’s not an App in the Store you do not possess).
“Oh, yeah,” the Lyft driver explained, “that dude was planning to rob you. When he saw you were in a large group, he must have panicked and taken off. Happens all the time.”
Was this just a Lyft driver taking an opportunity to cast doubt on a competing company? Or are there really unscrupulous drivers out there, waiting to take advantage of a stranded traveler?
Well, that depends on who you ask. The libertarian-leaning think tank Cato Institute found that Uber and Lyft were just as safe as traditional taxis. The Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association, a trade association, begs to differ, which is really no big surprise. The group operates a website called Who’s Driving You? that compiles the darkest reports of ridesharing assaults—and worse.
Both of these organizations have their biases, of course. The Associated Press flexes their journalistic objectivity in a story from 2016 that essentially throws its arms up in confusion. “Which is safer, Uber or a taxi?” asks the headline. “There’s no clear answer.”
Police don’t track ridesharing or traditional taxi usage in their crime data. Neither do transportation regulators. We’re left firmly in anecdotal country.
So, understanding that limitation to the data, here are the stories we’ve collected from victims, rideshare experts, and news reports over the years. Together, they add up to a simple guide on how to stay safe without having to delete the Uber and Lyft apps altogether.
1. The Fake Rideshare Driver
Cody Cooper, a realtor based in Austin, Texas, had a big property deal to celebrate. When the party ended, Cooper ordered an Uber. The driver contacted Cooper to admit that he was a bit lost. Unfortunately, not long after, Cooper’s well-drained phone battery sputtered and went out.
“I was stranded,” Cooper tells Urbo. “Finally, this guy [in a car] is like, ‘Hey, are you waiting on an Uber?’ and I said yes. He said, ‘I’m your Uber driver. Get in.'”
Cooper had called for an Uber; here was an Uber. He got in. Everything was fine until they arrived until they arrived at the destination. That’s when the driver demanded $75 from his passenger—in cash.
“I was like, ‘Hey man, what’s the deal?’ and he started yelling at me to try and intimidate me,” Cooper says. “When I said I refused to pay a scam artist, he threatened to call the cops, but I wasn’t scared. Finally, he left after threatening me physically and seeing that I wasn’t scared.”
All’s well that ends well, but what could Cooper have done differently to avoid falling for the fake-Uber-driver scam in the first place? Uber recommends ensuring that you only ever get into a car that matches the license plate and driver photo that show up when you find a match in the app. Cooper’s phone ran out of batteries, but not, presumably, before the app displayed identifying details about the car and driver en route to pick him up.
Harry Campbell, a leading rideshare blogger and host of the Rideshare Guy Podcast, echoes Uber’s point.
“Uber and Lyft will show you the driver’s name, picture, and make [and] model of the car, virtually ensuring you don’t get into the wrong vehicle,” Campbell tells Urbo.
The lesson? When you order an Uber, pay attention to the driver details—especially if your phone is low on batteries.
2. The Hacker’s Free Ride
In 2015, researchers from the digital security firm Trend Micro analyzed 10 years’ worth of data breach records. They found lots of alarming tidbits, but the point that concerns us here is this:
“Compromised Uber accounts have recently become very popular in Deep Web marketplaces, as these can be fraudulently charged with phantom rides,” the Trend Micro report says.
For about $4 a pop, hackers can buy a compromised Uber log-in. Then they ride on your dime.
The defense against having your Uber-identity stolen will be familiar to anyone who’s taken the most casual peep into cyber-security in general: Set up two-factor authentication. Set strong passwords that are unique to each platform. And whatever you do, don’t share your log-in information with anybody.
3. The Off-App Purchase
While we couldn’t find anyone who’s suffered this particular affront, Campbell says he’s heard tell of rideshare drivers going rogue by offering rides outside of apps.
“I’ve heard of scams like the one soliciting rides off the app,” Campbell says. But the blogger doesn’t see this as a huge problem.
“From my experience, reputable Uber and Lyft drivers don’t do this because they’re aware of the stings set up by local law enforcement to catch things like this,” he says.”
Again, the real risk about off-app transactions is to drivers, Campbell says.
“I only recommend Uber and Lyft drivers use the app because of scams like this, but in reverse,” he explains. “Passengers trying to get out of paying for a toll fare by canceling while en-route to their destination, or passengers trying to complain about a ride after the fact to get a free ride.”
For riders, the trick to avoid this scam is simple: Do everything through the app. If a driver offers you a cash discount to go off-app, politely decline and call another car.
4. Milking Cancellation Fees
Around the holidays in 2016, consumer news site Consumer Affairs warned of reports that Uber passengers were calling rides, only to have the drivers cancel at the last minute. Not only did this leave some travelers stuck in the cold, it reportedly also sparked some cancellation fees, to the tune of $5 a pop.
When, around the same time, Washington D.C.’s NBC affiliate aired a story about drivers cancelling rides late in the game, Uber released a statement:
“Ridesharing apps are changing a transportation status quo that has been unequal for generations, making it easier and more affordable for people to get around, no matter where they live and where they’re going.”
That doesn’t seem to address the issue, but Uber policy does. If a driver cancels more rides than the maximum allowed, based on average cancellation rates, they can be banned from the app. That should keep offenders to a minimum.
“I wouldn’t say scams happen regularly as in daily, but there’s always a subset of the population that are willing to be ethically ambiguous to get something for free,” says Campbell. “I would say it’s more likely to happen to drivers, getting scammed by passengers, from my experience, although I would guess there are also unscrupulous drivers out there, too.”
Should you even bother with rideshare apps, then?
The answer to this question depends. Do you need to get somewhere in a hurry and you don’t have your own car available? If so, Uber and Lyft could be a godsend.
There are even broader societal benefits to these rideshare apps, it seems. A range of studies have shown that the rise of these companies has coincided with a pronounced decrease in DUI arrests and substance-related car accidents. Once you filter out the studies published by Uber itself (yep, they do that), you’re still left with some compelling evidence that people are less likely to drive under the influence when they can take a convenient, low-cost ride.
For instance, one study from the CUNY PhD program in economics found that since Uber was introduced in New York City in 2011, drinking-related car wrecks decreased by 25–35 percent in all boroughs. That’s a difference of about 40 accidents per month.
Meanwhile, California law firm Monder studied DUI arrests from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles between 2008 and 2013, a key time period for the rise of Uber and Lyft. They found that the number of DUI arrests in the stat decreased for six of those years in a row.
Of course, as pointed out by other scientists, correlation does not causation make. The research is not rock solid—not yet. There could be factors other than the rise of rideshare apps at work in this beneficial trend for public health.
But if you’re out for a night on the town with your friends and you have to choose between possibly getting scammed and driving under the influence, don’t even think about driving. Your chances are much better in an Uber.
Just remember to verify the license plate and driver name before getting into the car. And if a driver pulls up with mud obscuring said license plate, walk away and try again.