Uber and Lyft drivers have long employed a number of secret strategies to help make ends meet. They are a group of workers who have seen a lot of pay cuts over the years, and every time, it seems like they come up with a whole new slew of strategies and scams.
Most riders are completely oblivious to the fact that drivers may be in some way taking advantage of them. In most cases, it doesn’t result in any real harm to the rider, but in some cases it might. Here are some of those dirty secrets.
The problem with upfront pricing
When Uber implemented its upfront pricing plan a few years ago — drivers found out that riders were paying considerably more than the drivers were making from the fare. Uber’s original deal with drivers was that they would pay them 80% of the fare. That was later dropped to 75% in most markets. But after upfront pricing was implemented Uber detached the driver’s pay from the passenger fare — allowing Uber to increase fares without having to increase driver compensation.
This infuriated many drivers and tempted a lot of previously honest drivers to start acting in dishonest ways. Drivers figured that if the passenger was paying Uber $20 but Uber was paying them as if the fare had only been $10, then they were getting cheated. And indeed, under Uber’s original terms of service, they were.
The way upfront pricing works is that when a passenger calls for a car, Uber will show them a final price, upfront. Uber will calculate this price on the longest, slowest possible route. But drivers will normally drive the shortest and quickest route, which is what they get paid for. Uber would pocket the difference and, in the process, basically cut the driver out of a share of the fare that they had originally promised to them.
When drivers realized what was happening, they decided that if Uber was charging for the longest, slowest route, then they would oblige and give customers the longest, slowest route. They could easily, with a few taps, view and select that route on their navigation app.
As they saw it, the customer should get what they’re paying for, and the driver should get their 75-80% cut of the fare.
How they got away it: Most people will know if a driver is taking a longer, slower route. But out-of-towners and tourists usually don’t know. Drivers quickly become experts in figuring out who’s who. You can’t fool a veteran driver even if you try. If you’re from out of town and you think your driver doesn’t know, you’re kidding yourself. They know.
Drivers know that when they pick riders up at the airport there’s a high chance they’ll be from out of town, and they will quickly size up whether or not their passenger is a local who is returning home or an out-of-towner who is there for a visit.
Then, the driver will determine if they visit often and know the city, or if it’s someone who isn’t too familiar with the area. Drivers can easily do this through a little chit-chat. Simple questions like, “Where are you from?” or “What brings you to town?” can bring the driver a wealth of information. Passengers have no idea what they just revealed.
If the driver determines the passenger isn’t familiar with the city, they will look at the various GPS route options. They will then select the longest and slowest one available. The passenger gets where they’re going, albeit a few minutes later than necessary, but it hasn’t cost them anything extra because Uber already gave them the price upfront, and they will not change that price unless the rider changes their destination.
Remaining in the airport queue — after leaving the airport
Because many trips are money-losing propositions for drivers, they feel forced to do every little thing they can to make a few extra cents here and there. A while back the rideshare giants found out their drivers were working a little scam at New York’s three major airports. This scam, like the one I described above, didn’t hurt passengers, but it did hurt other drivers.
Uber and Lyft both require that drivers be physically present at a specific location at the airport — known as the queue lot — in order to pick up a passenger there. But so many drivers would end up in the queue lot that it could literally take three to four hours before getting a call.
Obviously with wait times that long, it didn’t really make sense to ever wait at the airport. If you get a call after waiting four hours and you make $15 on the trip, you’ve just made $3.75 an hour. You might wonder why they wouldn’t just leave the airport and head back to town. The reason was most drivers just can’t bear the thought of leaving the airport empty.
There were SUV drivers who would use their New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) credentials to enter the airport driver waiting area as if they were going to get in the queue and wait for a passenger. Instead of entering the electronic driver queue themselves, they set up the back of their SUVs as something that looked like a cell phone shop. They would then collect cell phones from other drivers plus $5 each to ostensibly charge the batteries.
Obviously drivers don’t need to pay someone to charge their phones — they can charge them in their own cars like everyone else does. What they were really doing was much sneakier:
Most drivers originally signed up to drive for both Uber and Lyft, and they gave both companies their cell phone number. Both companies used the same number to connect with each driver.
For this scam to work, drivers had to get a second phone and number, and give that new number to just one of the companies.
Then after dropping a passenger off at the airport they’d head to the queue lot to get a return trip, but it could sometimes take several hours to get that trip, and drivers weren’t paid for their wait time.
Instead, they would give one of the phones to one of these “charger” guys. That guy would in fact plug their phone into a charger, but what they were really doing was letting the driver keep their place in the virtual queue with one company, say Lyft, while they would leave the area and take trips from outside the airport with Uber, using his other phone.
By utilizing this second-phone method, drivers were able to remain in the airport’s virtual queue system on one service, like Lyft, while freeing themselves up to do other trips on Uber outside of the airport. The guy they paid to hold their phones physically at the airport would give them a call when it looked like their number would be up within the next hour. Then they would head back to the airport and hopefully get a long trip.
It was the kind of “scam” you almost have to admire, because it didn’t really hurt anyone, and it helped drivers make more efficient use of their time.
In the end Uber and Lyft were probably wrong to allow so many drivers to pile up in the queue lot knowing they didn’t need them. But Uber and Lyft didn’t care — their only goal was to always have a driver available to pick-up each passenger. They didn’t care if they had 200 more drivers than they needed.
But since New York City passed new rules recently requiring Uber and Lyft to guarantee a minimum pay floor per hour for each driver logged into their system, it now costs the companies big bucks if they have more drivers sitting around than they need. Now they do in fact limit the number of drivers they allow to enter the queue.
Real fraud that endangers riders
While most forms of drivers taking advantage of the system doesn’t directly harm passengers there are some dirty secrets that actually do put passengers in harm’s way.
One of the most serious is account fraud where drivers share or rent out their driver account to another person who is not authorized and who has not been checked out by Uber or any of the other ride-hail companies.
An Uber spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal in November that, “We see so many different flavors of fraud in different markets.”
In London, for example, it was rather common for drivers to rent out their Uber accounts to others. If a driver was going on vacation, he may rent out his credentials to another driver who couldn’t otherwise pass the London background checks. The vacationing driver would then be able to earn a little money from his driving account even when he was gone and the renting driver would get to drive even though he wasn’t otherwise qualified to. It was found that sometimes renting drivers couldn’t even pass the driving exam and didn’t have a driver’s license. So yes, this particular scam is a real danger for riders.
The best way riders can avoid being picked up by someone who hasn’t authorized to driver is to make sure their face matches the photo they see in the app — although that’s not a guaranteed prevention because drivers have found creative ways to change the photo in the app to match whoever is driving the car.
In London, drivers are only allowed to change their profile photo when they’re in one of Uber’s Greenlight Hub offices, so they have to be physically present in the in order to change their photo. But a lot of the scam drivers were able to use fake GPS apps where they could fool Uber’s computers into thinking they were in the office when they really weren’t.