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

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - Words HAN­NAH SELIGSON  Il­lus­tra­tions MATT CHASE

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.

CLICK BAIT

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.”

TUN­ING IN

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.”

Brings new mean­ing to get­ting ‘sharked’ in a bar

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