DANGER ON DEMAND Why the sharing economy could be putting your safety at risk
The sharing economy has made it a breeze to get anything you want, any time you want. But the inconvenient truth behind our new convenient lifestyle? Our willingness to trust perfect strangers may be putting our safety at risk
One Saturday night last year, Maria*, 25, was at a rowdy bar celebrating a friend’s birthday. It was one of those great parties where you blink and it’s suddenly 2am. By then, Maria was tired, so she ordered an Uber – an occasional splurge on late nights, although she mostly tried to take the train. Five minutes later, her phone buzzed; the driver was outside. A little tipsy, Maria walked to the curb. “Are you my Uber?” she asked the guy behind the wheel of a car that was just pulling up. “Yes,” he replied. She got in, but soon became aware that he was turning onto the motorway in the wrong direction – north, instead of south, towards her home. When she asked why, the driver mumbled something about a different route.‘Strange,’ she thought.“But I wasn’t going to argue with him,” she recalls. Maybe he knew a shortcut. As they whizzed past exit after exit, though, Maria realised she hadn’t checked his number plate against the one provided by Uber – and that he likely didn’t work for the company.
He demanded she hand over her phone. “Be quiet or I’ll rape you,” he hissed. He claimed to have a gun.
Stunned and terrified, Maria thrust her designer handbag, jewellery and bankcard on the front seat, lying that her cheap gold hoop earrings were expensive and reciting her PIN number.“I thought he was going to do something terrible to me and then leave me on the side of the road,” she says.“I thought I was going to die.”
It felt like hours later when he finally pulled off the motorway, miles from her neighbourhood.“Before I take you home, I’m going to do some pussy work on you,” he said. Panicked, she focused on getting out of the car. At a traffic light, she threw open the door and sprinted into the night.
With no purse or phone, she finally managed to flag down a police car. The policemen – perhaps assuming she was just a lost drunk girl – didn’t file a report, but they did put her in a licensed cab that ferried her safely home, where she had to run into her flat for cash.
But a few weeks later, Maria was using Uber all over again.
The digital revolution has overhauled human behaviour in some pretty significant ways, perhaps none more surprising than this: we’ve become so conditioned to delegating various details of our lives to strangers to handle that we don’t even bother to check that they’re the right strangers.
A decade ago, most women would have thought twice before asking someone to put together IKEA furniture, walk their dog, vacuum their bedroom, or stay in their bedroom. But tech services have introduced a revolving door of helpful strangers – and eager lovers – into our worlds. They materialise with a few clicks – even mums, who used to warn, “Don’t talk to strangers,” now book them to babysit via apps like Bambino.
The convenience is seductive – and ubiquitous. European consumers are increasingly spending more and more money on the on-demand economy. So much so, PwC, a multinational professional services network headquartered in London, predicts that sharing economy transactions could rocket to €570 billion by 2025. To put this statistic into perspective, that’s up from a meagre €28 billion today. In the UK specifically, PwC (who predicts major trends within the economy) forecasts that ondemand household services (such as Shoreditch-based home services start-up Bizzby) will expand the most, with revenues expanding by 45% a year to 2025.
“Our norms are changing,” explains Colin Strong, global head of behavioural science at market-research firm Ipsos, and author of Humanizing
Big Data.“We see others using these apps, and it soon becomes acceptable.” Car sharing is often cheaper than alternatives – a serious lure to the super-skint generation. But people also increasingly value experiences over material things, says Strong. And as we rush to embrace the novel – to go to new places, try new things – concerns about safety can seem negligible.
It doesn’t hurt that on-demand apps have a ‘Tech City’ sheen of efficiency. It’s easy to see them as a clean-scrubbed Gumtree, and to assume that workers and users are vetted – and, therefore, benign.
That’s a mirage, say the experts – and in some cases, a mistake.“The sharing economy is trying to turn strangers into friends,” says Dr Lucas Coffman, a visiting associate professor of economics at Harvard University
“We don’t even check that they’re the right strangers”
and chief behavioural officer at US money-sharing platform Frank. A driver’s photo or profile can “make us feel a sense of familiarity”, he says. “But these companies are not doing a perfect job.”
As is the case with so many other things, the technology has adapted more quickly than our reflexes for dealing with it – leaving a gap between what’s convenient, and what’s safe.
“We’re on a major learning curve right now,” adds Katie L Greer, an internet-safety expert in the US. “Because of how convenient these apps are, we forget the most basic privacy and safety principles.”
THE COST OF CONVENIENCE
But shrugging off those principles can come at a high price. There have been reports of hundreds of alleged instances of physical and sexual assault by ride-hailed drivers over the past few years. In 2016, a Freedom of Information request submitted by The Sun revealed that 32 assault claims were made against Uber drivers in London over the previous 12 months. One such driver was jailed for 18 months after he picked up a passenger outside Brixton Tube station and assaulted her. According to the 24-year-old woman’s account, he leaned across and touched her, asking, “Are you comfortable with this?”
Meanwhile, over the past few years, imposter Uber drivers like Maria’s have been linked to sexual assaults and robberies all over the US. Uber itself has raised an alarm about drivers – some who have homemade Uber signs in the window – impersonating its workers at airports in New York.
Car transportation apps are just the tip of the iceberg. A spokesperson for the house-cleaning app Handy said that in 2016, more than 500 users submitted substantiated claims of theft to the company. (This represents just .04% of bookings that year.)
As for dating apps, think tank Pew Research Center found that 42% of women who use them have experienced harassment or felt uncomfortable. Here in the UK, it was revealed that more than 400 offences related to apps such as Tinder and Grindr were reported to police in 2015, increasing seven-fold over a period of two years. In fact, the number of people who reported they’d been raped on a first date by someone they met on a dating app or site increased six-fold from 2009 to 2014**.
Still, for digital natives who have rarely thumb-hailed a taxi or stayed in a hotel they had to book over the phone, surrendering on-demand convenience remains unthinkable.
Several years ago, Elizabeth*, 33, went on a couple of dates with a match from OkCupid. One night, when a restaurant they tried to eat at had a two-hour wait,“He flipped out a bit,” she recalls.“He was muttering under his breath that I ruined the date and ‘fucked everything up.’” Elizabeth was scared enough that she fled his car at a crossroads, in heels. Several days later, she received a text: “What was up with you the other night?”
She deleted her OkCupid account, but she still uses other apps such as Uber and Handy. Her reasoning: “The people I’ve interacted with on those services are working for a company. I see a distinction between using the sharing economy to get from point A to B, and a mobile app to meet men.”
Regardless of how well vetted a person seems, it is vital to trust your own instincts, cautions Greer.“If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”
That’s a fact that Emily*, 28, wishes she’d considered. On her way to a family gathering two years ago, she and her fiancé stopped to break up the drive, booking a well-reviewed guesthouse via a home-sharing app.
When they arrived around 8pm, there was “a creepy vibe”, recalls Emily. The family in the main house stared at them through the window, and none of them looked like the profile picture she’d seen online. But she brushed off the bad feeling – it was only one night.
Then around 2am, someone rattled the door.“We were freaked out,” says Emily. A guy outside asked,“Is someone in there?”
He claimed to have forgotten that he’d rented the cottage. Emily was so shaken that after she heard him drive off, she and her fiancé packed up their stuff and left. (When she complained, she got her money back with credit for a future stay.)
Many larger platforms can’t run checks on every single user – if they do them at all – so they rely on their communities to post feedback and raise red flags. But hosts with hundreds of five-star reviews don’t exist everywhere, and it’s easy for users to prioritise location and cost over ratings.
Companies that provide a set paid service, like Uber and Handy, do
“It was 2am and someone was rattling at the door”
typically run background checks.“And many platforms have done a lot to improve the number of clues you have about the person on the other end of the transaction,” says Arun Sundararajan, professor of information, operations and management sciences at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of The Sharing Economy. “But this is still not a hotel where, say, Hilton is responsible for your experience from beginning to end. There is more burden on you to find a safe provider.”
Ironically, a second wave of tech services is emerging to help ease that burden. BlaBlaCar provides a ladiesonly service that filters the route you’re travelling to ensure that both fellow passengers and drivers are women. However, in online dating, it is the US that is leading the way when it comes to introducing safety mechanisms. Aste, launched by Julie Nashawaty after she discovered that a guy she met on a dating app had been arrested for robbing a bank, is one such service that performs independent background checks by professional investigators for online daters. Since it launched in January, Nashawaty says that 25% of its searches have turned up as catfish or scammers. Only time will tell if a similar service will make the journey across the pond.
Still, your own vigilance may be your most important shield. Maria, for one, has devised some new rules for herself: “I know these apps are never going to be 100% foolproof, so I share my location with friends.” (Uber lets its clients do this directly from the app.)
Emily has become more selective about home sharing – looking for dedicated holiday rentals, professional photos and many reviews – and only staying at someone else’s place if travelling with another person. Soon, though, she’s attending a wedding where there are no hotels. She’s already booked accommodation using an app.
“The place is a 15-minute walk from the wedding,” she reports.“It’s worth it for the convenience.”
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