uber-assault

Travis Kalanick’s day may be about to get a whole lot worse. NBC4 LA is currently running a promo for their 11 pm news show which includes a segment on Uber that looks like it’s out of “To Catch a Predator.”

“Your mother warned you not to do it,” the husky-voiced narrator intones ominously. “But a popular app lets you catch rides from strangers without a clue who’s behind the wheel.” What comes next is less than reassuring news: NBC LA claims it reverse-engineered a criminal driver.

That is to say, the investigative team says it found a reformed convict with a 20-year “rap sheet” of burglary, cocaine possession, and assault. They then had this person apply to be an UberX driver and — uh oh — she passed the background check with flying colors and was approved. With her face blurred out, this person describes one of her former crimes, “I pulled a girl out of a car and almost beat her to death.”

For the full story viewers will have to turn into NBC LA at 11 pm or watch it online around midnight at www.nbcla.com.

This of course wouldn’t be the first case of an UberX driver with a criminal record the company missed in its background checks. As Pando has previously reported, an SF driver who allegedly assaulted a passenger had served prison time for a felony but slipped through the company’s checks. The Chicago Tribune then found another UberX driver, this time from Chicago, who passed the company’s checks despite having a felony and two misdemeanors to his name.

But, assuming NBC’s story is accurate, this is the first big expose of a driver with a criminal record since the company claimed to have expanded its background checks. It brings up the issue of whether these new checks are doing their job. Has Uber has exaggerated their efficacy?

After consumer complaints and several investigations, Uber’ introduced these expanded background checks back in February. The company claimed it started employing a service to send someone in person to pull records at courts when they weren’t available online, as is the case in many districts. It also started running county level — instead of just state level — checks. At the time, Uber said “[We] are committed to maintaining industry-leading policies.”

But unfortunately that may not be enough. The Uber driver featured in NBC’s investigation applied in early February for the job and was notified she had passed the background check in early March. That’s a full month after Uber announced its new checks.

There’s no reason for this driver to have passed the checks, because Uber required even older drivers to come get re-vetted. Their blog post announcing the news said, “This expanded program also involves running county and federal background checks on all existing rideshare partners who have not yet cleared these additional checks.”

Again assuming that NBC’s reporting is good, this is an Alexander-level terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Uber. It also raises the relentless question that has refused to go away: Why the hell is Uber still not performing Live Scans — the official, government regulated, fingerprint based background checks required for most taxi companies? Pando has asked Uber this again and again without getting a satisfactory answer. It may be leading the ridesharing industry in terms of safety practices, but given that the company is increasingly taking over the taxi sector, it needs background checks that are just as good as that industry too.

At the time of publishing Uber had not responded to Pando’s requests for comment [~1 hour prior to publishing]. We’ll update this story if and when we hear back.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]