With carjacking incidents involving ride-share drivers on the rise in Chicago and other markets, Uber is rolling out a nationwide verification program for riders using payment methods such as prepaid debit cards, gift cards or Venmo.

Beginning Friday, riders who set up an account with an anonymous form of payment will need to upload a drivers license, state ID, or passport before booking a ride. Uber is the first ride-sharing company to require such passenger verification.

The process also applies to the Uber Eats food delivery service.

“We think this adds an additional layer of identity verification,” said Sachin Kansal, vice president of product management at Uber. “For criminals who intend harm, this is going to be a huge deterrent for them as they would not want to go through that identity verification process.”

Carjacking has surged during the pandemic, and ride-share drivers have not been immune.

In 2020, there were 1,415 carjackings in Chicago, a 135% year-over-year increase and the highest total since 2001, according to a Tribune review of police information. The pace is accelerating this year, with 370 carjackings in Chicago through mid-March.

There have been nearly 40 carjackings of Chicago ride-share drivers since October, according to an informal survey conducted by the Chicago branch of the Independent Drivers Guild, which has lobbied for increased verification of riders. Concerns increased after Uber driver Javier Ramos was shot and killed by a passenger during a March 23 carjacking in Chicago.

Kansal said Uber implemented the rider verification program in part based on feedback from drivers.

“We absolutely think having to verify an account will deter criminals from using the application the way they have been,” said Lenny Sanchez, 42, a ride-share driver and union organizer.

While the percentage of riders using anonymous payment methods is not very large, Uber has identified a correlation between anonymous payments and criminals “intending harm towards drivers,” Kansal said.

Several years ago, Uber implemented a social media verification, requiring users to enter their Facebook account information for certain kinds of anonymous payments, Kansal said. The new identification requirement will provide better verification and an “additional layer of safety” for drivers, he said.

Ride-share companies share information with each other regarding drivers flagged for criminal behavior, Kansal said. But privacy concerns prevent sharing information about problematic passengers, he said.

Billy Kewell, a former Chicago-based Secret Service agent who leads the law enforcement outreach team at Uber, said the ride-share services work directly with law enforcement to report and apprehend criminal passengers, including carjackers.

“In the first few months of 2021, when these carjackings have increased, we’ve been collaborating with the Chicago Police Department on a pretty consistent basis,” Kewell said.

Ride-share drivers have faced a difficult road during the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders reducing demand and health concerns about the inherent lack of social distancing in their mobile workspace.

Sanchez, who has been an Uber and Lyft driver for six years, says he hasn’t picked up a passenger since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

There were 75,000 ride-share drivers registered to work in Chicago as of last summer, according to Isaac Reichman, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs.

On Wednesday, Uber announced a $250 million incentive package to meet the rising demand for drivers in Chicago, temporarily boosting the hourly rate for drivers working at least 20 hours a week by nearly $5 to more than $33 per hour.

Uber is hoping the new passenger verification requirement will provide another incentive to get its drivers back on the road.

“Our goal here is driver safety and giving drivers peace of mind,” Kansal said.

©2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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