Uber, Lyft reportedly skimp on background checks

The companies use a budget background-check service, Download.com says.

Marrian Zhou Staff Reporter
Marrian Zhou is a Beijing-born Californian living in New York City. She joined CNET as a staff reporter upon graduation from Columbia Journalism School. When Marrian is not reporting, she is probably binge watching, playing saxophone or eating hot pot.
Marrian Zhou
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Uber and Lyft  use background screening services that are less expensive than one used by parts of the taxicab industry, a practice that may have contributed to the companies failing to identify some drivers with criminal backgrounds, according to Download.com

A 2016 lawsuit revealed that Uber used Hirease and Checkr for background checks of its drivers. Those background checks failed to catch 25 drivers with criminal backgrounds because the screening process didn't include access databases with complete criminal histories or go back as far as the law allows, according to the lawsuit. 

Uber settled the lawsuit, which was brought by San Francisco and Los Angeles, for $25 million. Lyft also settled a lawsuit stemming from lax background checks in 2014.

In 2017, Lyft was required by Chicago to change its background checking service, Sterling, after it failed to catch a convicted terrorist, according to Download. Download is a sister-site to CNET.

The Download report comes as ride-hailing companies come under fire for reported sexual assaults by their drivers. Critics say insufficient background checks might be part of the problem. The checks often don't require fingerprinting to verify a driver's identity. Similarly, the checks often don't cover an applicant's entire criminal history.

Download said part of the reason Uber and Lyft use less expensive background checking services is that they pay for the service rather than the driver, who usually foots the bill in the taxi industry.

"Potential taxi drivers often have to pay the cost for their own background checks--which serves as a self-screening mechanism," Download reported. "So, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft could certainly require its drivers to do the same if they wanted to improve security. The problem is that it would get in the way of their push to sign up as many drivers as possible and to onboard drivers quickly to drive their business forward."

Live Scan, another background checking service that is used by taxi regulators is more rigorous, according to the Uber lawsuit. 

In most US states, a Checkr background check costs between $5 and $20 and doesn't include fingerprinting, according to Download. Live Scan, which is used by the New York Taxi Limousine Commission, costs $50 per person and includes fingerprint checks, the site reports.

Fingerprinting is required for accessing the FBI's criminal record database, Download reported, providing a deeper background check.

"Comprehensive background checks are critical to customer safety. No background check is perfect, including fingerprint checks, which only reflect information voluntarily submitted to the FBI from states and municipalities," said a Checkr spokesperson in an email statement. "The commercial databases and local courthouses Checkr searches contain more complete and up-to-date information verified at the original source."

It's also important to know that every state has different laws regarding background checks and what kind of information is available.

"Fingerprinting is a decades old technology that discriminates against minorities and communities of color, which is why we don't operate ride-sharing in places where it is required," a Lyft spokesperson said in an email statement. "Each background check [for Lyft drivers] includes a social security number trace, a nationwide criminal search, a county court records search, a federal criminal court records search as well as a US Department of Justice 50-state sex offender registry search. Criminal background checks are re-run on drivers annually."

Uber and Hirease didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from CNET. It isn't clear if Hirease is still working with Uber.

First published on August 29, 5:41 p.m. PT.

Correction, August 31, 1:56 p.m. PT:  Checkr failed to identify one of 25 drivers whose criminal records weren't seen in the 2016 lawsuit. An earlier version of this story mistakenly reported the company was responsible for all 25 instances. Adds information about Sterling, the background checks service Lyft uses, and adds Checkr spokesperson statement. Adds embedded lawsuit.

Updates, 3:26 p.m. PT: Adds Lyft spokesperson statement.