Uber rides and your safety: How the rideshare company is helping fight carjackings, sex trafficking

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Monday, April 26, 2021
Uber rides and your safety: How the rideshare company is helping fight crime
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EXCLUSIVE: How Uber security experts can help prevent and track sex trafficking crimes, as well as arrest suspected carjackers.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It could be a local driver who's a victim of a carjacking or a rider at risk of human trafficking. In an ABC7 exclusive interview, an Uber Security expert explain to the I-Team how its own security experts work with police, and how the app's technology can keep you safe.

WATCH: Video shows rideshare driver carjacked in West Town

Uber told the I-Team its hired law enforcement experts like former Chicago-based U.S. Secret Service Agent Billy Kewell to help police catch suspected criminals.

"If there's a crime associated with the Uber platform, now you've uploaded information, right? Since you've used it to commit a crime, you've now uploaded, you know, account identifiers, so to speak, that then law enforcement can use to apprehend and locate suspects related to these crimes," Kewell said.

Those crimes could include human trafficking and carjackings.

RELATED: As Chicago carjackings surge, rideshare drivers demand photo requirement as a deterrent

"We have a specific instance where, in response to one of these carjacking incidents, our investigations team was able to kind of dive into the data, use their investigative tools and figure out the linkage between rider accounts," Kewell said.

Two 19-year-old riders were subsequently charged with vehicular hijacking and robbery in connection with the March carjacking of an Uber driver in West Garfield Park.

Uber said it helped police find those suspects by using trip data, which zeroed in on a "particular address" and a "payment method" from one of the suspects.

In February, rideshare drivers told the I-Team they were concerned about the surge in carjackings and so-called "phantom profiles," allowing riders to use fake names, pictures and other methods to potentially victimize drivers without being identified.

Since then, Uber has announced some changes.

RELATED: Uber adds new rider verification feature to help keep rideshare drivers safe from carjackings, crime

"If someone tries to create a rider account using some anonymous form of payment, whether it's a gift card, or a Venmo account, or a prepaid debit card -- they'll now be required to upload or provide some form of identification to go with it, whether it's a driver's license, a state ID or a passport," Kewell said.

Kewell said his team is also working with police on human trafficking cases. They've helped to catch suspects, broken up trafficking rings and drivers have even gone undercover.

"If law enforcement came to us and they had an investigation where they thought human trafficking was taking place on our platform, then we would work with them to kind of, again, use investigative tools, dive into the data, looked at linked accounts, right. Rider accounts that have kind of associated characteristics payment methods and shared devices and whatnot, and then that can inevitably lead to kind of a larger network of accounts where, you know, they're utilizing Uber as sort of a facilitator for human trafficking victims," Kewell said.

In addition, Uber works with the non-profit organization "Polaris," where Uber drivers receive this training on how to identify human trafficking victims.

"What trafficking is, what it isn't, but also the nuances of the crime that it's not always just something in your face -- physical violence or something like that, but that really psychological manipulation can play a really key role," said Elaine McCartin with Polaris.

There are red flags that drivers learn to watch for like:

  • A rider who is disoriented, lost or fearful;
  • Younger riders who may not know which town they're in;
  • Signs of physical abuse;
  • Or requests from riders to be dropped off at a hidden entrance.
  • "So traffickers, just like the rest of us, have to utilize transportation to get from point A to point B. So any type of transportation, whether that's on the ground using rideshare, in the air on airlines, trains, buses -- they're going to find a way to get from point A to point B," McCartin said. "So Uber is not unique in having to confront this issue, but they are really stepping up to the plate in how they are integrating these safety initiatives into everything that they do in their business."

    Polaris data from 2019 shows there were 11,500 situations of human trafficking in the U.S.

    It's important to point out, that for privacy reasons, Uber requires police to get a subpoena or go through other legal processes in an emergency situation to get rider information.