Who's really taking you for an Uber ride?

After an Uber driver allegedly rapes a woman in Boston, the ride-sharing service's background checks come under scrutiny.

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
6 min read

Questions over Uber's background checks are raised after a woman is allegedly raped by a driver for the ride-sharing service. Adam Berry/Getty Images

When Harry Campbell decided to become an Uber driver, he sat down on his couch, flipped open his laptop and filled out an online form with some basic personal information. Within 10 minutes he was signed up. Within eight days, he was out on the road.

"When people ask me what they need to become an Uber driver, I say, 'All you need is a smartphone, a and a pulse,'" said Campbell, 27, who is a Los Angeles-based ride-share driver who blogs about his experiences.

Campbell is one of thousands of drivers who use the Uber app to connect with passengers looking for a ride. These drivers are independent contractors who work their own hours, are their own boss and drive their own cars. The ride-sharing service now operates in 260 cities in 50 countries around the world.

Despite Campbell's comments, not just anyone can become an Uber driver. Would-be drivers must first go through a series of background checks designed to weed out felons and lesser criminals. Uber spokesman Taylor Bennet said the company has the "most stringent and rigorous checks in place." But they're not foolproof. Reports of alleged assault, rape and kidnapping by Uber drivers have surfaced over the past few months. So how are these people slipping through the cracks?

Several reasons can account for background screenings not homing in on criminals, said Lester Rosen, background check expert and CEO of nationwide background check firm Employment Screening Resources. One reason may be alleged perpetrators have clean records. The checks may also fail to spot criminal activity. It's also possible that basic online screenings aren't adequate.

"Background checks need to be a lot more detailed than just checking a database. You need to check every place where a person has lived, worked and studied," Rosen said. "It's not one size fits all."

Litany of problems
Earlier this month, a young woman went out with friends in Boston. At about 7:30 p.m., she e-hailed an Uber car to take her home. Alejandro Done, 46, picked her up, according to Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan. Done allegedly drove the woman to a secluded area, stopped the car and locked the doors. He then allegedly got into the back seat and hit, choked and raped her.

"This alleged predator took advantage of a young woman who trusted that he was who he portrayed himself to be and exploited her vulnerability once he had her in his car," the district attorney said in a statement last week.

Done was arraigned on charges of rape, assault to rape, kidnapping and two counts of assault and battery last Wednesday. Uber cooperated with lawmakers to help identify Done as the driver by looking through that night's service records.

Passengers can hail an Uber ride through a smartphone app. Uber

"This is a despicable crime and our thoughts and prayers are with the victim during her recovery," Uber spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh said. "Uber has been working closely with law enforcement and will continue to do everything we can to assist their investigation."

This alleged rape case isn't the first for an Uber driver. Various media reports of rape, sexual harassment and groping have surfaced in Washington D.C., Chicago and Orlando, Fla. Within the last month, The Boston Globe reported three other incidents of alleged assault or inappropriate touching by ride-sharing drivers in Boston (it's unclear if these drivers were working for Uber or another ride-sharing service). Earlier in December, an Uber driver in India was accused of beating and raping a passenger, prompting officials to ban the service in the country's capital Delhi.

A few Uber drivers have also allegedly brandished knives and guns, punched, choked and beaten passengers, according to several media reports. The most publicized of these incidents happened in San Francisco in September when an Uber driver allegedly grew aggravated with his passengers and struck one of them in the face with a claw hammer -- leaving the victim with severe damage to his left eye.

Uber says it has the most rigorous background screening process in the industry. It also says it's continuing to tighten these checks. Last week, the company announced it's exploring new methods to screen drivers, including biometrics, voice verification and possibly even polygraph exams. It's unclear if and when these methods will roll out.

"We have more work to do, and we will do it," Uber's head of global safety Phillip Cardenas wrote in a blog post last Wednesday. "Uber is committed to developing new technology tools that improve safety."

What Uber's background checks do and don't have
Before driving for Uber, people must first pass several background checks. In the US, would-be drivers' names are run 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 who has a history of violent crimes, sexual offenses, gun-related violations or resisting arrest.

Uber says its rides are safe because its app records drivers' every trip, along with a GPS history. These features helped the company identify Done in Boston.

But according to Uber driver Campbell, passing Uber's background check was fairly simple. The entire process was automated, and he never had to meet anyone in person.

"It's all you and the computer," Campbell said. "You never have an interaction with a human to become an Uber driver."

Uber rival Lyft, on the other hand, puts every new driver through what's called a "mentor ride." This ride entails an "experienced" Lyft driver meeting newbies and going out with them for a drive. New Lyft drivers aren't allowed to pick up passengers until their mentor approves them.

"That's one thing some people say Lyft has over Uber... a lot of people think that weeds people out," Campbell said. "With Uber, you're just thrown to the wolves."

Taxi companies also perform background checks. In San Francisco, for example, all new cab drivers' names are run through various government databases. They are also fingerprinted, which -- according to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon -- is the best way to screen potential drivers.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced California is suing Uber for misleading passengers about safety. James Martin/CNET

Gascon announced earlier this month that the state of California is suing Uber for allegedly misleading passengers by claiming it has the most stringent background-screening process in the industry.

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

Uber spokesman Taylor Bennet said Uber's background checks, which are conducted by a third-party company called Hirease, trump fingerprint and FBI checks. He said loopholes exist with fingerprinting that miss people who've been arrested but haven't yet been scanned.

When asked why Uber doesn't just add fingerprinting to what it already does, Bennet said it takes too long. "It's a very long process, it could take up to months," Bennet said. "Our Hirease can happen in days time."

What could be done better?
The Uber driver accused of rape in Boston had a clean background check, according to Uber; as did the San Francisco driver who allegedly hit his passenger with a hammer. This seems to be the case with the majority of incidents allegedly perpetrated by Uber drivers in the US.

Rosen, the background check expert, said screenings are only one part of the solution to lower risk -- especially since they can be complicated and imperfect.

"There's not any way to foolproof background checks," Rosen said. "There are incidents with repair people who go into people's homes. There are teachers who molest. No matter how much you do, at some point there's going to be some risk."

Other possible types of checks include training, in-person meetings and interviews, psychological and honesty tests, past employment checks and supervision, Rosen said. He believes the ride-sharing community should focus on putting time and money into establishing a standardized protocol for safe driver screening -- because if they don't do it, the government will.

"At the end of the day, there's not going to be demand for a service that people don't perceive as safe," Rosen said. "Safety is not where you take short-cuts."

Updated December 26 at 6:40 a.m. PT to clarify that Uber uses third-party company Hirease to conduct its background checks.