When your Lyft or Uber arrives, you probably double check that the driver's name and car matches the information listed on your app. But the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered a new scheme that allows anyone to circumvent background checks and vehicle inspections and pose as a rideshare driver, leaving passengers with virtually no way to spot a phony.
NBC Bay Area went undercover and joined a network of messaging apps and chatrooms, where we found brokers hawking Uber and Lyft driver accounts. It costs between $100 and $200 a week to rent a black market account, and around $800 to buy one. Clients pay the brokers to set up the accounts, and the renters then link to their bank accounts. Any money they make driving is theirs to keep.
NBC Bay Area rented an account to learn how the process works, but didn't drive. The account history, however, showed cars giving rides to plenty of unsuspecting passengers throughout the Bay Area.
We tracked down one of those passengers, a young Richmond woman, who was picked up in July by a driver who rented the same account we did. She didn't want us to use her name but described a chilling ride where the man tried to make a U-turn into oncoming traffic and even started to reverse down a one-way street.
"He's backing up on this one-way, and I was like, 'No don't do that,'" the woman said. "And he was like 'No?' And I was like, 'No!'"
After several close calls and missed turns, she decided to get out and walk home.
"I was like man, I'm really going to get into a car accident with this guy," she said.
BYPASSING BACKGROUND CHECKS
Remember, the man isn't an authorized Lyft driver and didn't go through a criminal background check or car inspection. But NBC Bay Area learned once renters have access to an account, it's easy to dupe passengers.
Renters can swap in their own selfie and car information and drive under someone else's name. Our experience indicates that brokers go to great lengths to fabricate the documents rideshare apps ask drivers to produce.
RIDESHARE IDENTITY THEFT
The name on the account NBC Bay Area rented, and the associated driver's license number, does in fact trace back to a real person living in Southern California. We called the man at his home near Los Angeles, and he had no idea that someone created a Lyft driver profile in his name.
It turns out his identity was stolen and used to set up the account.
"The process should be a lot more difficult," said the young man, who asked us not to name him in this story. "There shouldn't be a way for someone just with information to open an account in my name without being able to prove and verify that it is me opening that account."
Consumer complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission show that while these reports are rare, dozens of people across the country believe their identities were used to create Uber or Lyft driver accounts.
Here in California the Department of Motor Vehicles investigates individuals driving under other people's licenses, and cracks down on counterfeit DMV documents. Tom Wilson, Deputy Chief of Investigations, said this is the first case he's heard of where someone may have used a stolen driver's license to sign up for Lyft.
"This is brand new to us; at least these types of allegations," Wilson said. "We welcome the fact that you are bringing it to us."
Wilson encourages victims to report identity theft to the DMV, but said much of the responsibility of protecting customers lies with rideshare companies themselves.
"We really put the front end of the work on the companies because they are the ones who put the processes in place to establish is this the person we are dealing with," Wilson said.
LYFT AND UBER PASSENGER PROTECTIONS
Recent cases like the alleged San Francisco rideshare rapist highlight cracks in Lyft's driver authentication system. The company claims the suspect fraudulently represented himself to gain employment as a driver.
NBC Bay Area wanted to ask Lyft what it's doing to safeguard against fraud, but the company declined our interview request, stating only: "What's being described is extremely concerning. We have a dedicated team that investigates fraudulent behavior, which may result in immediate deactivation from the platform."
We also reached out to Uber, which pointed to several measures the company uses to prevent account-sharing and detect fraud. A spokesperson for the company said even if someone is able to create an account, that doesn't mean the account can be rented successfully.