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A brief history of Uber scandals

Daniel Roberts
Writer

Michigan resident Jason Dalton, the alleged shooter in a spree Saturday night that resulted in six deaths and two injuries, is 45 years old and had worked as an insurance salesman for Progressive. He was also an Uber driver. Amidst his shooting, Dalton reportedly picked up Uber riders in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Uber is playing defense now, with chief security officer Joe Sullivan saying on Tuesday: "No background check would have flagged and anticipated this situation." Still, the company has acknowledged that Dalton passed its background check, and also that it received complaints about Dalton hours before the shooting.

The event has raised obvious questions about Uber's safety measures for passengers and its process for approving drivers, who are not considered "employees" but contractors. They are questions that have been raised time and again as Uber has been in the news for the wrong reasons, and they are questions that a P.R. statement is unlikely to put to rest. This is the latest in a long line of scandals, missteps, and criminal activity associated with the app. Earlier this month, Uber spent nearly $30 million to settle two lawsuits over misleading customers regarding its safety measures.

But Uber continues to raise venture capital at soaring valuations: In July, the company closed a new round of more than $1 billion, bringing its valuation to more than $50 billion and leap-frogging Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone maker, as the world's highest-valued tech "unicorn." (Airbnb, Snapchat, Palantir and other companies valued at more than $10 billion are now called "decacorns," but at $50 billion, Uber is a lone "quinticorn." In December, tech outlets reported Uber is seeking another couple billion in funding that would value it above $60 billion.) The company is like Donald Trump, in a way: Seemingly no amount of bad press can slow its momentum. The app now delivers an average 2 million rides every day.

From passengers being raped by Uber drivers, to the app implementing surge pricing during a hostage situation, to a senior executive suggesting the company dig up dirt on journalists, here are just some of the worst moments the six-year-old company has weathered.

December 2013: Uber driver hits a family, killing one

An Uber driver in San Francisco, Syed Muzaffar, struck a family in a crosswalk, killing a 6-year-old child. The family sued Uber for wrongful death, and the company at first denied responsibility because Muzaffar was in between fares at the time of the accident. The accident was the first to ignite a still-ongoing debate over whether Uber can be held accountable for its drivers, who are contractors, not employees. Last year, Uber settled with the family for an undisclosed sum.

January 2014: Uber employees order fake rides to sink competitor

Citing leaked documents, multiple outlets reported that Uber employees had conducted an organized effort to order cars from a new competitor app, Gett, and cancel their orders just before the ride arrived. Later, reports would emerge of a much more concerted effort by Uber to do this again to its competitor Lyft.

February 2014: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick gets unflattering profile in GQ

In a profile that ran in GQ, Kalanick is on the record calling his ride-sharing app "Boob-er" (a reference to his attracting more women thanks to the app's success) and blaming the media for suggesting Uber is "somehow liable" for various incidents of bad behavior by drivers. It was not a flattering piece.

March 2014: Uber driver accused of groping a passenger

A passenger in Chicago sued Uber after her driver, Jigneshkumar Patel, allegedly locked the car and groped her before letting her out. Uber deactivated the driver's account immediately after the incident and said "the safety of riders and drivers comes first."

June 2014: Uber driver kidnaps woman

An Uber driver in Los Angeles, Frederick Dencer, was arrested after kidnapping a woman who had passed out in the car. The woman woke up in a hotel with the driver, who asked her to stay but allowed her to leave. He was eventually released without charges.

June 2014: Uber driver charged for assault

A cab driver in San Francisco, Daveea Whitmire, was charged with battery in two different assault incidents with passengers, one of which occurred when he was driving for Uber. The charges in the Uber incident were later dropped, but the story raised concerns over how the driver could have passed Uber's background check in the first place because Whitmire had felony charges from 2009 and 2012 for selling drugs.

September 2014: Advocacy group sues Uber for discrimination

The National Federation of the Blind sued Uber in California court, citing 30 occasions when blind passengers were denied rides, as well as incidents when drivers mistreated service dogs, and one in which a service dog was put in the trunk of a car. The lawsuit is ongoing.

September 2014: Uber passenger struck by Uber driver with a hammer

An UberX driver in San Francisco, Patrick Karrajah, struck a passenger, Roberto Chicas, in the face with a hammer after a dispute. Karrajah was charged and the case is ongoing. 

October 2014: Uber driver charged with battery and vandalism

An Uber driver in San Francisco, Martin Hynek, was charged with battery and vandalism after he pulled a passenger out of his car by the arm and threw her cellphone into the street when she tried to take a photograph of him. The driver posted on social media disputing the events, but an SFPD officer later confirmed the passenger's story. Hynek was given a court date; it is unclear whether the case was resolved. 

November 2014: Executive suggests digging up dirt on Uber's critics

Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice president of business, made some comments at a New York dinner that put the company in a downright evil light. According to Buzzfeed's Ben Smith, who was at the dinner, Michael suggested Uber spend "a million dollars" to hire "opposition researchers" who would help Uber fight negative press by looking into "your personal lives, your families," BuzzFeed wrote, and exposing journalists. Michael also specifically mentioned one reporter, PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, who had written a column about women being sexually assaulted by Uber drivers. There was an outcry, mostly from the media, and Michael apologized. He is still with the company. (Uber's "God View," which allows employees to track customer activity, has come under prolonged scrutiny.)

December 2014: Uber driver accused of raping a passenger

A driver in New Delhi, Shiv Yadav, was accused of raping his female passenger. The city of New Delhi banned the app as a result, and Yadav was later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

December 2014: Uber activates surge-pricing during a police siege in Australia

In the midst of a dangerous hostage situation in Sydney, locals were desperately trying to flee the area, and turned to their Uber apps to find that 4x surge-pricing was in effect. The company spun the pricing as a positive step, saying, "Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area."

December 2014: Uber driver accused of raping a passenger

A driver in Boston, Alejandro Done, was charged with rape and kidnapping after he allegedly brought a female passenger to a secluded spot and assaulted her. The Boston Globe reported it was the fourth time a passenger in the area accused an Uber driver of sexual assault. Last year, Done was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

April 2015: Uber driver charged with robbery

An Uber driver in Denver, Gerald Montgomery, allegedly picked up a woman at her home, drove her to the airport, then returned to her house and attempted to rob it. The incident raised yet more concerns about the information drivers have once they have picked up a passenger.

November 2015: Uber rider attacks a driver

In a reminder that it is not only passengers who need to be kept safe, a Taco Bell executive, Benjamin Golden, was arrested and fired after a dashboard camera showed he attacked his Uber driver.

January 2016: Uber driver charged with rape

A driver in Athens, Ga., John Kamens, was charged with rape after he returned to a passenger's home hours after dropping her off, broke in and assaulted her.

February 2016: Uber driver in Michigan goes on shooting spree

The Kalamazoo incident is bringing renewed attention to Uber's system for approving new drivers. Yahoo Finance reached out to Uber to ask whether the company is considering changing its background-check process in the wake of the Michigan tragedy, but did not receive a response.

To be sure, some argue that riding in an Uber car is no more dangerous than riding in any yellow taxi or black cab. And Uber is not the only ride-sharing app that has had safety and privacy issues. Over the past three years, women have reported stories of both Uber and Lyft drivers abusing their privacy by contacting them after a ride. (See: this Valleywag story; this Daily Beast story; and this Twitter thread.) Uber charges a $1 "safe ride" fee on every ride; passengers have railed that they shouldn't have to pay extra to be safe, and that the fee clearly doesn't guarantee safety anyway.

There have been so many incidents that a helpful web site, whosdrivingyou.org, now tracks every criminal case involving Uber and Lyft. But it is not only passengers who have complained about being mistreated by the company: its drivers protested in Queens this month after Uber reduced driver rates by 15 percent.

Safety is not a problem specific to Uber. It is one that the whole "sharing economy" is struggling with, as apps and web sites proliferate that put people in the cars or homes of strangers. Most notably, a man died on a rope swing at an Airbnb home, raising questions of safety and insurance when you book with Airbnb. As Uber continues to grow (and mulls an IPO or some kind of exit), it will need to address these concerns.

This story was updated at 9:10am EST on Feb. 23, 2016.

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. 


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