Real life: Should you ever put your teenage daughter in an Uber?
Many parents rely on the taxi app to avoid that late-night ferrying. But two recent convictions raise a disturbing question...
Night-time and a 14-year-old girl climbs into a waiting cab. As the vehicle heads across South London to her suburban family home, she and the 35-year-old driver, Spyros Ntounis, begin chatting.
He offers her chewing gum and asks what she has been up to and how old she is. Next, he gives her his telephone number, saying if she ever needs a lift she should call him. He gets her to text him there and then, so he can save her number. Ntounis then tells the girl she is ‘hot’ and that she has ‘nice lips’. She’s alarmed that a man old enough to be her father is talking to her in this way and her unease grows as he slows the car to a 5mph crawl. ‘He said he wanted to spend more time with me,’ she later recalled.
Finally arriving home, the girl ran inside. But the next morning, she received the first of several messages. Ntounis asked if she was ‘OK’ before, creepily, offering to ‘give her lessons’ in anything she wanted. He lied, saying he was 26, and asked if he had ‘passed the age test’, then tried to persuade her to meet him. ‘I would love it,’ he wrote.
Worried, the girl told her parents about the unwanted advances. They called the police and Ntounis was arrested. Following a trial at Kingston Crown Court a few weeks ago, he was convicted of attempting to groom an underage girl. He could face jail when he is sentenced this month.
A lucky escape, one might conclude. But the details of this case should ring further alarm bells – because Ntounis was a driver for Uber, the controversial company behind the hugely popular taxi-hailing app, even though he had a criminal conviction for dishonesty and had been accused of sexually harassing other passengers. In the months before the incident with the teenage girl, three other women had separately complained to Uber about his inappropriate behaviour.
It was claimed he told the first he felt ‘horny’, while starting an ‘inappropriate’ conversation with the second one, whom he stared at continuously as he drove. And the day before picking up the teen, he had asked a third woman if he could ‘satisfy her needs’.
What’s more, Ntounis’ case is not a one-off. On the same day that he was found guilty, Shahid Qureshi, another Uber driver, was convicted at Inner London Crown Court of two counts of sexual assault and jailed. The first related to a woman he groped in 2016, the second to a 16-year-old exchange student. His initial victim had complained to Uber, who had not reported the matter to police – leaving him free to carry on working.
Drivers bend the rules
Both of these cases will fuel concerns about how Uber operates. According to a company rule, under-18s should not travel alone in Uber cars. ‘Drivers are not supposed to pick up people under 18 — but if they get a job and the fare’s under 18. What do they do?’ asks Steve Mcnamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and a vocal opponent of Uber. ‘Of course, they take it.’ He adds, ‘The reason Uber is so
‘This case isn’t a one-off’
popular is because it’s cheap. So, rather than get out of bed to pick up their daughter from her mate’s, parents send an Uber. But people are sacrificing common sense for a pound or two. Why would you put your 16-year-old daughter in a stranger’s car?’ Of course, coming from a ‘rival’ organisation such words could be sour grapes. Because since Uber launched here in 2012, it’s been a huge hit – one that has severely dented the income of other taxi drivers and cab firms.
Uber has over 40,000 drivers across 40 UK towns and cities. But the issue of passenger safety remains. Figures last year suggested that sex attacks involving Uber drivers could be running at almost one a week, and last August it emerged police had written to Transport for London (TFL), the authority responsible for licensing private hire drivers in the capital, to express concerns the company was ‘covering up’ sex attacks to protect its reputation.
There was more drama last September when TFL stripped Uber of its licence for not being a ‘fit and proper’ company. Uber is appealing the decision and is allowed to continue operating in London during the appeal process. This February, it vowed to proactively report complaints to police and to set up a hotline for passengers. Of course, for some, that may be too late…