Uber missed sex offenders, other ex-convicts in driver screenings: US prosecutors

Prosecutors say Uber's screening doesn't necessarily catch criminal convictions dating more than seven years earlier.
Prosecutors say Uber's screening doesn't necessarily catch criminal convictions dating more than seven years earlier.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LOS ANGELES (Bloomberg) - Uber's criminal background checks for drivers failed to prevent it from hiring registered sex offenders, identity thieves, burglars, a kidnapper and a convicted murderer, California prosecutors said.

The district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles escalated their fight with the ride-share service on Tuesday (Aug 18) in a revised lawsuit that faults the company for giving the public false assurances that its drivers are safe. The criminal histories of some drivers did not come to light until they were cited for violations while picking up airport passengers or street hails, the officials said.

The prosecutors compared the background check system used by Uber with a programme called Live Scan used by taxi regulators. They said Uber's screening does not necessarily catch criminal convictions dating more than seven years earlier.

"While we agree with the district attorneys that safety is a priority, we disagree that the LiveScan process used by taxi companies is an inherently better system for screening drivers than our background checks," Uber said on Wednesday in a statement. "The reality is that neither is 100 per cent foolproof - as we discovered last year when putting hundreds of people through our checks who identified themselves as taxi drivers. That process uncovered convictions for DUI (driving under the influence), rape, attempted murder, child abuse and violence."

The Los Angeles Times this month reported that police in that city ticketed at least four Uber drivers convicted of past offences, including child exploitation and manslaughter, that would have prohibited them from driving a taxi.

A representative of the taxi industry presented the criminal backgrounds of those drivers to a city official, according to the Aug 4 news story. A group of California cab companies are suing Uber over claims it falsely advertises itself as being safer than taxis. Uber lost its bid for dismissal of that case last month.

The company has scrapped with regulators from Houston to Berlin on issues from whether it is required to follow existing taxi laws, to how it handles rider data. The company is also sparring with California's labour commissioner over a June ruling that drivers connecting with clients through its app must be treated as employees, with a minimum wage, mileage compensation and social security. The decision strikes at the heart of the start-up's business model and its US$50 billion (S$70 billion) valuation.

Uber's background checks rely on personal identifying information, not fingerprints, according to the lawsuit filed last year by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and his Los Angeles counterpart Jackie Lacy.

As a result, Uber cannot ensure that the information in any background check is associated with the applicant because it does not use a "unique biometric identifier", according to the complaint.

"I support technological innovation," Mr Gascon said in an e-mailed statement. "Innovation, however, does not give companies a licence to mislead consumers about issues affecting their safety."

The company says on its website that while there are benefits to using biometric identification, LiveScan is not 100 per cent accurate. Smudged or smoothed prints may allow drivers with criminal records to pass a LiveScan check, according to Uber.

Lyft, a competitor to Uber's app-based, on-demand car service, last year agreed to pay US$500,000 and refrain from misrepresenting its driver vetting process to resolve similar allegations.