Uber's background checks don't catch criminals, says Houston

After a passenger was allegedly raped by her Uber driver, the Texas city threatens to shut down the ride-hailing service. Uber says it will comply with the city's rules.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
4 min read

The City of Houston requires all Uber drivers to get FBI fingerprint background checks, but that doesn't mean they all do. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images

Last week saw the latest story about an Uber driver, for all the wrong reasons. The newest incident happened in Houston, when an Uber driver allegedly took a drunk female passenger to his home and raped her.

The driver, Duncan Eric Burton, 57, is an ex-con. He'd spent 14 years in federal prison on drug charges and was released in 2012, according to the Houston Chronicle. And he had cleared Uber's background check.

How does that happen? The city of Houston believes Uber's background checks aren't thorough enough. That's why Houston is among the few cities to require every Uber driver to be licensed by the city and undergo FBI fingerprint checks. But while the city requires it, Uber doesn't -- allowing people to still drive for the ride-hailing service as long as the authorities don't catch them.

"Not all background checks are created equal," said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director to the City of Houston's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. "It's easy to lie about your name, it's easy to lie about your Social Security number, it's easy to lie about where you've lived. Your fingerprints are tied to you."

Case in point: one applicant who cleared Uber's background checks had 24 alias names, five listed birth dates, 10 listed Social Security numbers and an active warrant for arrest, according to a report released last week by Houston's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

"No commercial background check will ever be as thorough as a background check run by a governmental entity through the FBI database," Cottingham said.

Missed opportunities
That's not to say Uber's background checks aren't rigorous. They are. The company puts all potential US drivers through commercial background checks, which are conducted by a firm called Hirease. It runs candidates' names through seven years of county and federal courthouse records, a multi-state criminal database, national sex offender registry, Social Security trace and motor vehicle records. Uber rejects anyone with a history of violent crimes, sexual offenses, gun-related violations or resisting arrest.

Contrary to Houston's findings, Uber says fingerprint checks aren't as thorough because they only include crimes where police take fingerprints. Uber says 79 applicants for its black town car service failed Hirease's checks and it found similar results in other cities over the past six months.

"We work with experts who review a driver's background against local, state and federal criminal records -- going to the source of the records rather than relying on databases that may not always be up to date," said Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock.

Uber's rival Lyft uses a similar commercial background check service called Sterling BackCheck. Lyft , which doesn't operate in Houston, declined to comment for this story.

Comply or be shut down
Houston Mayor Annise Parker wrote a letter to Uber on Tuesday saying the company must require drivers in Houston to get city licenses, which include the fingerprint checks, or be shut down. She said the city's enforcement personnel "frequently encounter Uber drivers...who are not licensed by the City."

Uber responded to the mayor on Friday. In a letter, the ride-hailing company outlined the steps it's taking to make sure drivers comply with the city's requirements. It said that after would-be drivers pass Hirease's checks, Uber notifies them they also must get a license from the city. If Uber identifies any drivers that failed to get the license, it will deactivate their accounts.

"More than 2,000 driver partners have been removed from the platform for failing to obtain a city license," Uber's general manager, Chris Nakutis, wrote in the letter.

Houston isn't the only jurisdiction complaining about Uber's background checks. California is suing Uber for allegedly misleading passengers by claiming it has the most stringent background-screening process in the industry. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon advocates fingerprinting as the way to screen potential drivers.

"The company repeats these misleading statements giving consumers a false sense of safety," Gascon said at a press conference in December. "You're not using an industry-leading background process if you're not fingerprinting your drivers."

For its part, Uber says fingerprint checks are time-consuming and delay the process of getting new drivers onboard. But Houston's Cottingham said the process typically takes just three to five days and the wait is worth it to let passengers know they're safe in Uber cars.

"We want everyone in the city of Houston to have that peace of mind," Cottingham said. "You know the driver is safe, you know the car is safe."

Updated at 3:05 p.m. PT with information on Uber's response to Houston Mayor Annise Parker.