MIAMI: The next time you use Uber, check your bill. The trip could turn out to be expensive – not just for the distance but for a type of fraud that is on the rise.
It's called “vomit fraud”, a scam repeatedly denounced in social networks yet still taking place around the world.
What is it? Passengers request Uber cars, which deliver them to their destination. So far so good.
But soon the passenger receives a note from Uber reporting an “adjustment” in the bill and an extra charge that can range from US$80 (RM325) to US$150 (RM609), depending on the driver's degree of crookedness.
If you think that's frustrating, you're right. But the worst is still to come.
The passenger, unaware of what's happening, tries to contact Uber. The only way to do that is through the “help” button on the company's app or Internet page.
The first reply usually goes something like this: “I understand that it can be disconcerting to receive adjustments to the tariff after your trip ended ... In this case, your driver notified us that during your trip there was an incident in the vehicle and therefore a cleanup fee of US$150 (RM609) was added.”
The message is accompanied by photos of the alleged incident – vomit in the vehicle. The Uber driver had sent the images to the company, which considered them sufficient evidence to add the cleanup charge to the bill.
Uber policy is to charge US$80 (RM324) if a passenger vomits or spills a drink on the seats or any surface difficult to clean. But the charge can increase to US$150 (RM609) in cases of “significant quantities of body fluids (urine, blood or vomit) in the interior of the vehicle”.
Uber says the extra fees compensate the drivers for the time and money they spend cleaning their vehicles.
Uber told el Nuevo Herald that it is “actively looking into reports where fraud may be detected and will take appropriate actions on those accounts”.
The company added it did not have specific numbers on fraud cases but that “the vast majority of cleaning fee reports are legitimately the result of someone making a mess in the car. In the instances where we find a confirmed case of fraud, we take appropriate action.
“With 15 million trips a day, Uber is unfortunately not immune to these types of incidents.”
So what happens if there was never any vomit?
Some passengers have to send three or four e-mails to resolve their complaints. They must tell Uber that there was no incident, and then wait for the company to investigate and, if it agrees, reimburse their money.
Several victims told el Nuevo Herald about their vomit fraud cases.
“I requested an Uber from Wynwood to the Edgewater area. At one point the driver told me a road was closed and that he could drop me off near my destination to avoid an extra charge. I agreed and got off,” Miami resident Andrea Perez said about one trip last year.
But the next day Uber e-mailed her a bill with an additional US$98 (RM398) cleanup charge. It included a photo of vomit on the seat of the SUV she had used.
“I immediately contacted Uber through the app. I told them that I was alone, sober, that I was not carrying any drinks and that it was impossible for me to have caused that damage,” she said. “But every new e-mail from Uber came from a different representative and always favoured the driver.”
Despite several e-mail exchanges, Uber never agreed to reimburse her the extra money. But she disputed the charge with her credit card company and got back her US$98 (RM398). Uber then cancelled her account.
William Kennedy, another Miami resident, said he was a victim of vomit fraud. Twice on the same night.
Kennedy took one Uber from Midtown to the SLS hotel on Brickell Avenue, and another later from the SLS to a club in Wynwood. Neither trip cost more than US$20 (RM81), he said.
But the next day Uber sent him an e-mail notifying him that it had added two US$150 (RM609) charges to his bill because he had vomited in both vehicles.
“It was a total fraud by two different drivers. They have everything planned for the fraud,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy tried to explain to Uber that he was a victim of two frauds, but it took “numerous e-mails” to persuade the company to agree to cancel the charges and reimburse US$300 (RM1,219) to his credit card.
Vomit fraud is not the only way that some Uber drivers are cheating customers.
Some drivers never pick up the passenger but then charge for the trip. Some combine frauds and report incidents of vomit in trips that never took place.
That's what happened to an el Nuevo Herald journalist who called an Uber ride to the airport. The driver never showed up, so she cancelled that request and asked for another. When she checked her e-mail the next day, she learned Uber had charged her US$16 (RM65) for the trip that never took place, US$6 (RM24) for cancelling it and a US$150 (RM609) cleanup fee.
When she complained, Uber sent her an e-mail saying the driver “reported an incident during the trip” and attached two photos of the supposed vomit in a car seat.
The journalist sent Uber cellphone screenshots of the cancelled trip, plus the name of the driver and license plate number of the vehicle that did take her to the airport. After four e-mails to Uber, the company agreed with the appeal.
“I have taken the time to review this trip and I see that it was an uncomfortable experience, because the driver started the trip without you in the car, which should not happen. We also reimbursed the value of the cleaning fee to your account,” read the e-mail.
The e-mail also said that the driver who claimed the false vomit, identified only as Evaristo, had been removed from the app and no longer has access.
One Uber driver who asked to remain anonymous said that she is aware of frequent use of vomit fraud, and that she knows other drivers in South Florida have done it and won the disputes with passengers.
“They've been doing it for a long time,” she said. “Many people don't review their e-mails or credit card statements, so the drivers wind up pocketing the US$80 (RM325) or US$150 (RM609).”
Miami police say this type of fraud “is difficult to consider as a crime” and that any complaints are a matter between the passengers, Uber and its drivers.
If neither Uber nor the credit card issuers agree to reimburse the victims of fraud in Miami, it's not clear if the dispute becomes an issue for the county or the state.
The Miami-Dade Office of Consumer Protection said that as of July 1, 2017 it no longer “regulates complaints against transportation services such as Uber or Lyft”, and that any complaints should be addressed to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The state consumer affairs department said it was not aware of the change and declined an interview request.
It's unclear what steps local governments can take to stem the fraud, which is leaving Uber customers without needed protection.
In Mexico, for example, a national consumer protection agency recently fined Uber US$52,000 (RM211,317) for “charging for additional services without the express authorisation of the consumer such as fees for cleanups, repairs or items forgotten in the car”. — Miami Herald/Tribune News Service
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