It was a day like any other for Shannon Powell. In early February, he was driving for Uber in Baltimore as he had been for the last three and a half years. As he worked through the afternoon, picking up and dropping off passengers, he sipped on a Coca-Cola and made small talk.
Then, at around 5 p.m., Uber pinged him and everything changed. He had a stellar 4.88 rating and more than 14,000 trips under his belt, but he hadn't quite realized that driving full-time for thecompany meant his entire livelihood could be destroyed by a few comments from riders.
In the message, Uber said a passenger claimed Powell "may have been driving under the influence while using the app," according to screenshots seen by CNET. The company then deactivated his account.
"This was my main source of income," said Powell, who has since been evicted from his home because he couldn't pay the bills. "I really have no other options."
The incident represents an unintended consequence of a feature ride-hailing companies put in place to ensure the safety of their passengers. Both Uber and Lyft boast "zero tolerance" policies for drivers who use drugs or alcohol while on the apps. The companies encourage riders who "suspect that a driver is under the influence" to first contact 911 and then the ride-hailing services' support teams. In certain situations, when Uber receives a passenger complaint and concludes the ride was unprofessional, it'll refund the trip.
Some drivers say, however, passengers are abusing the feature, using false complaints about everything from drug use to a driver's attitude to get free rides. That, in turn, can have devastating consequences.
"While passengers may save a few dollars, drivers face temporary or permanent deactivation," said Bryant Greening, an attorney who represents riders and drivers in accident and injury claims for Chicago-based firm LegalRideshare. He noted that he gets calls from Uber and Lyft drivers about false accusations daily. "They lose the ability to work, earn money and provide for their families, all because a passenger scammed the system."
An Uber spokeswoman said the company has a specialized team dedicated to investigating all safety complaints. Team representatives speak to both riders and drivers and then take the action they deem appropriate, she said, including deactivations.
"Each case is individually handled," the spokeswoman said. "We have these policies and our support team does its due diligence in looking into these cases with safety top of mind."
The strict stance is in accordance with many states' zero tolerance laws -- something Uber got into trouble for in 2018. California fined the company $750,000 that year for reportedly not investigating all of its rider complaints about drunk drivers.
Lyft has a similar protocol to Uber, but says it additionally analyzes riders' previous interactions with the company to ensure there are no trends of misleading or false reports.
"Lyft's community guidelines prohibit fraudulent activity of any kind," a Lyft spokesman said. "Such behavior can and does lead to a permanent ban from the platform."
With Uber, drivers say the company often sides with the rider. CNET spoke to five drivers who said their accounts were deactivated for things they say they didn't do. Three were accused of DUIs, one was said to have smoked marijuana while driving and another was blamed for getting in a car accident that never actually happened. Twitter, Reddit and Facebook groups are filled with hundreds of comments from angry drivers who say they've experienced similar scenarios.
In some of these instances, Uber only temporarily shutters the driver's account while it investigates the claim. But in other situations, like Powell's, the deactivation is permanent.
Powell swears he was sober. After he got the message from Uber that afternoon and talked to a company representative, he immediately went to an urgent care center and paid out-of-pocket to get a toxicology test. A technician at the center tested Powell's saliva and performed a BAT, or basic abilities test, for alcohol. The report, which Powell shared with CNET, came back negative.
"I showed proof that I wasn't intoxicated or had anything in my system," Powell said. "This report should have counted."
James Morran had a similar experience one night in mid-December. He'd been a full-time Uber driver in Los Angeles for more than three years, boasted a 4.92 rating and had given nearly 7,000 rides. Typically, Morran doesn't drive at night, but he was trying to earn extra money for the holidays.
As he drove through the evening, nothing of note happened, he says. None of his passengers mentioned anything unusual to him.
The next morning, Morran woke to a message from Uber that read, "We received a report from one of your riders stating you appeared to be under the influence during a trip," according to screenshots seen by CNET.
Morran was perplexed. He said he definitely wasn't drinking alcohol. The only thing he could think of was that maybe a rider confused the smell of the medicine he takes for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which requires an inhaler and extra strong cough drops, for alcohol. But he had no way to prove this.
"If they would've called me right when the event happened, I would've gone to take a blood test," Morran said. "The thing that gets me is that I'm being deactivated because of an unconfirmed report."
Drivers say it's often unclear why they get deactivated when the rider's complaint is either unconfirmed or the driver can prove sobriety with a toxicology report.
Morran exchanged messages with Uber several times that day. At one point, Uber said, "We know that there are riders who exhibit inappropriate behavior and make false feedback," according to screenshots seen by CNET. However, the company still decided to permanently deactivate his account since he had "additional unconfirmed reports describing driving under the influence."
Powell received a nearly identical message from Uber after going back and forth with the company. Both drivers acknowledge getting other complaints, but say those situations also involved false accusations that were cleared up afterward.
Uber's actions keep in line with California law. Two years ago, the state's Public Utilities Commission fined Uber after investigators looked into the ride-hailing company's handling of more than 2,000 customer complaints of intoxicated drivers from August 2014 to August 2015. They found Uber reportedly failed to investigate more than 100 of those complaints, which violated California's zero-tolerance policy.
At the time, an Uber spokeswoman told CNBC that the company had "significantly improved its processes since then." She also cited Uber's community guidelines, which said, "Uber may also deactivate the account of any driver who receives several unconfirmed complaints of drug or alcohol use."
Uber has since removed that language from its guidelines.
Dealing with it
One way some drivers are dealing with bogus complaints is by installing dashcams in their cars, which they can use as proof of their innocence.
In Scranton, Pennsylvania, an Uber driver told ABC that his account was deactivated because of a reportedly fake DUI complaint. So he handed over his dashcam footage. Apparently, the camera recorded the rider bragging about the free rides he gets from such accusations. Uber reinstated the driver after reviewing the footage.
While Uber says it talks to both sides, Greening, the lawyer, said it needs to do a better job of providing due process to all parties involved -- rather than usually giving the benefit of the doubt to riders. And if it's proven a rider made a false report, then they too should get dings on their account.
"Certainly, if a driver is intoxicated, incompetent or offensive, that driver must be reprimanded and/or expelled," Greening said. "However, in the same vein, there must be repercussions for passengers who make false claims, up to and including permanent deactivation and fees used to make the accused driver financially whole."
As for Powell, he's now living out of his Nissan Sentra and doing deliveries for Postmates and DoorDash. He tried everything to start driving for Uber again, since he can earn at least three times as much money.
He reached out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Maryland Bar Association and even President Donald Trump. The only one he heard back from was the White House on behalf of the president. In an email, a representative said, "this matter is a State and local issue" and told Powell to contact the officials where he lives. So he did that too.
"From what I was told … companies such as Uber and Lyft have the right to let you go at any time," Powell said. "I guess it's a done deal."