Uber's new "expanded" background checks: Just a PR move or the real deal?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 17, 2014

From The News Desk

Last week Uber announced that it would be expanding its background checks of all drivers to include federal and county records. In other words, from this point forward, it wouldn't just rely on a multi-state criminal database, a method that proved to be decidedly flawed.

As Uber explained, "In our experience, records appearing in one database but not showing up in another is a rare occurrence, but we consider this situation unacceptable all the same."

At first glance this seemed a win for passenger safety. It certainly sounded official -- "federal and county background checks, on top of the existing Multi-State Criminal Database check" -- how much more secure could you get?

Of course, Uber's original "national criminal background checks" also sounded very official -- the company even called them "stringent." And if you look how those checks panned out, the short answer is: not well.

First there was Pando's investigation revealing that a driver accused of assault had passed Uber's no-tolerance background checks despite having spent time in prison for a felony and having two misdemeanor charges to his name. Then, news broke that the driver who killed 6-year-old Sophia Liu was found to have been arrested and convicted for reckless driving ten years prior. Shortly thereafter news broke that Uber had not been personally background checking its black car drivers, relying on its transportation partners to do that. Lastly came the Chicago Tribune news that an Illinois Uber driver had also slipped through the checks with a felony record.

So you can imagine my skepticism over Uber's new, expanded background check procedure, particularly given that the company didn't give much information about how the checks would be conducted.

Uber also didn't acknowledge the one big catch of county criminal records: They aren't all available online. In some places you have to go in-person to the courthouse to request such records. Then you wait, and wait, and return days or weeks later when they've been pulled for you.

To do those checks across the country would be a monstrous undertaking from an operations perspective, especially for a company scaling as quickly as Uber. The big, unanswered question looming over its new background check procedure: Would it do so?

This weekend, the company confirmed to Pando that yes, it will send representatives in person to pull county records when they aren't available online. If true, that's excellent news, and a huge step forward for Uber in terms of vetting its drivers. It also puts Uber at the head of the ridesharing pack -- ahead of Lyft and Sidecar -- in terms of most extensive background check procedures.

When records are available online, Uber is relying on county databases. This is also good news -- if it was relying on state databases that collect information from counties, those files are frequently incomplete. Individual bureaucracies don't always report all the records they should.

"The problem with centralized databases is that they require the local agencies feed them all the records," Brian Willingham, private investigator and founder of the investigative firm Diligentia Group, tells me. "There's been issues in other states. In Texas, only 60 percent of the counties reported to the Department of Public Safety and it wasn't always automated."

It's a good example of how reporting requirements and the comprehensiveness of databases vary dramatically. There is no one magic system that's 100 percent complete.

When Willingham is investigating someone's background, he tries to leave no stone unturned, and that means searching every database imaginable for every county a person may have gone to school, lived or worked in, because that's where they're most likely to have been arrested.

Uber confirmed to me that they will be running checks in every county where a potential driver held a residency. It's similar to Willingham's procedure, if not quite as thorough.

Each step Uber takes toward improving transportation safety is good news for passengers. This development is particularly reassuring. Uber finally appears to be taking background checks seriously.

That said, there's one coverage gap that the company still hasn't bridged. It has staunchly avoided the gold standard of background checks, the type required for taxi drivers in most California cities: Live Scans. No ridesharing companies -- Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar -- do them.

Anyone following Pando's ridesharing coverage has seen me harp and harp and harp on the importance of Live Scans. No background checks are perfect, and official government databases have their own flaws, but Live Scans are the best vetting a company can do outside of hiring a personal investigator.

A Live Scan is a fingerprint-based background check that indexes official Department of Justice and FBI databases. It's the most complete and thorough database available, which is why taxi companies are required to Live Scan check their drivers, not just search public records systems.

Furthermore, it updates after the fact; the company receives a notification if someone is arrested after he's been hired and his background checked. One licensed Live Scan provider, who asked to remain anonymous because he conducts business in San Francisco, told me the system can pull up so much information that companies must be authorized by the DOJ before they can run such checks on their employees.

For a company to be eligible to Live Scan potential employees, said employees must be working in an official capacity with the public, such as doctors, financial service providers, group home caretakers, public school teachers, ambulance drivers, certain hazardous waste drivers, and taxi drivers.

Ridesharing companies would seemingly fit this category perfectly. I reached out to the state of California Department of Justice last week for more information, but have not heard back. The Live Scan provider I spoke with said the process for authorization was relatively straightforward. Uber would need to apply and explain the services it provides.

This is as close to a standardized, trustworthy background check as one can get, aside from hiring an expensive private investigator. So why doesn't Uber do these checks on drivers?

The company hasn't spoken publicly about the matter, so it's not entirely clear. But there are several possible reasons. For one, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates ridesharing companies and black car services, doesn't mandate Live Scan background checks. When it legalized ridesharing, it only required “national criminal background check[s] including the national sex offender database," which has a lot of holes.

Why didn't the CPUC require Live Scans for ridesharing companies? The agency hasn't said, after several requests for comment. The CPUC doesn't require Live Scans for black car services -- one of the other transportation providers it regulates -- so it probably decided to hold ridesharing companies to the same standard. Taxis are regulated by a different entity -- municipal commissions -- so that's why their background checks are tougher.

Of course, as ridesharing companies grow in popularity, they're taking over much of the role taxis once provided. The CPUC should have held them to the same background check standard as taxis, but it didn't. Ridesharing companies were (almost) left to their own background check devices.

Even without the legal requirement, Uber has plenty of reasons that should compel it to run more rigorous background checks. It has raised $307 million in venture, is reportedly making $213 million a year in revenue, and can afford it. Every time an Uber driver with a criminal record that slipped through the background check process hits the news, public confidence in the company erodes.

And yet, Uber still hasn't introduced Live Scans. The word Live Scan was noticeably missing from its big proclamation of its expanded background checks.

Perhaps the expense over time -- roughly $70-$80 per check -- seems too steep. Or maybe Uber is leery of slowing down its scaling process. Live Scans would require sending potential drivers to physical offices for fingerprinting, which could discourage them from signing up. As we've documented, the biggest scaling challenge facing ridesharing companies isn't generating customer demand, it's getting enough drivers on the road.

Its expanded checks are a huge step for the company, and show that Uber is leading the ridesharing industry in driver vetting standards. Now all it needs to do is board the Live Scan train. It'