In recent years, campaigns promoting safety in the ride-hail industry have focused on having passengers verify that they’re getting into the right car with an approved driver to prevent crime.
Now, with stolen phones commonplace and carjacking reports up 125% in Chicago, there is growing concern that Uber and Lyft drivers need better ways to verify the identities of the people who are getting into their vehicles.
Jen — we’ve changed her name to protect her identity — is one of two ride-hail service drivers who contacted CWBChicago last week after we published reports of Uber drivers being carjacked on the North Side. Both drivers said they were robbed after responding to calls for service that they received via the Lyft and Uber apps. Both drivers said they verified the passenger’s names before beginning the fateful journeys.
Ride-hail services offer several pieces of information to help passengers ensure that they get into the right vehicles with the right drivers. The companies and police have repeatedly encouraged customers to compare a car’s license plate number, vehicle make and model, driver’s name, and driver’s face to information provided through the company apps.
But, other than the name on the account, drivers have limited ways to verify passenger identification. That’s a problem if a criminal orders a ride using a stolen phone.
“He’s robbing me! He’s trying to steal my car!”
Shortly before 6 p.m. on November 11, Jen dropped off an Uber passenger at their destination and quickly received another ride notification via the company’s app.
“I was to pick up a Mr. Dave S — there was no picture on his profile,” she remembered.
At the pick-up location, a man identified himself as Dave, and she let him into her back seat. They began riding toward his destination without any problems.
Suddenly, “he pulled out a gun and jammed it into my ribcage,” Jen said. “He scooted forward from the back seat, so his face was right against mine, and he said, ‘If you don’t want to die, then do what I say.’”
The passenger demanded Jen’s car keys, but her vehicle has a keyless start, and she told him she didn’t couldn’t recall where the keys were, she said.
“Truthfully, I had them in my jacket pocket the entire time. I was just trying to buy time to collect my phone and wallet without him noticing.”
She convinced the gunman to let her pull over so she could look for the fob. He agreed, and she took the opportunity to get out, back away from the car, and ask two people at a nearby bus stop for help.
“Call 911! He’s robbing me! He’s trying to steal my car!”
That’s when the robber jumped into the driver’s seat and sped away.
Chicago cops who responded to the scene gave her a ride home, she said. Details of Jen’s account are confirmed in the CPD case report.
“This is not the first time that this has happened,” she said while referring to accounts other drivers have posted online. “There has been a rise in car theft and violent acts among Uber drivers.”
On the night after Jen was carjacked, WGN news aired a Lyft driver’s account of being carjacked at gunpoint after picking up a passenger who ordered a ride through that company’s app.
“So two people walked up on my passenger side and asked if I was Lyft, and I asked them for the name on the account, and they gave me the name on the account,” the man told reporter Jenna Barnes. “No sooner than they shut the door, then I turned around right at my driver’s door, and within a few feet, there was a guy with a gun pointed at my head.”
The men took his car.
“I wondered if the person that [ordered the ride] was actually the person or is this someone they had done like, stole their phone and made calls to get Lyft riders or Uber drivers out there and then rob them of everything they have,” he said.
Robbed while waiting
On the same evening that the Lyft driver was carjacked, two men hijacked an Uber driver while he waited for a passenger to arrive on the 400 block of West Roslyn in Lincoln Park. In that case, the robbers approached the man’s car, put a gun to his head, and ordered him out of his gray 2016 Lexus. It’s not clear if the carjackers ordered the ride or if they just happened upon the driver as he waited for a legitimate customer.
And, a few hours after Jen’s episode, a gunman carjacked another Uber driver who was waiting for a passenger on the 1500 block of North Wells in Old Town, according to a CPD report. In that case, the passenger who ordered the ride was apparently legitimate.
According to CPD spokesperson Officer Michael Carroll, Chicago police detectives are investigating all of the carjacking reports.
“Detectives will look into each incident independent of the other, but will also look and see if there could be any correlation between the incidents,” Carroll said. “If a link is found, detectives will work the cases together with any other incidents that may fit a similar pattern.”
Asked for advice the department would give to ride-hail drivers, Carroll offered several tips:
- Beware of surroundings at pickup location.
- Keep doors of the vehicle locked until the arrival of the customer.
- If the customer profile has a photo, compare it to the passenger to confirm their identity.
- Use an in-car camera system to record passengers, if allowed by the company.
- Report any suspicious activity to police by contacting 911.
Neither Uber nor Lyft responded to our requests for comment and driver safety recommendations.
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