Slaying puts focus on ride-hailing safety, fake drivers
By TAMMY WEBBER
CHICAGO (AP) - Whenever Rachel Orden calls for an Uber, the 20-year-old Michigan State University sophomore immediately walks to the back of the vehicle to check the license plate number, then opens the door and waits for the driver to say her name before getting in.
Even then, she devises a backup plan in case she feels uncomfortable.
"How could I get out? Could I unlock the door? Who do I have on speed dial? Could I jump out safely if I needed to? All that goes through my mind," said Orden, of Naples, Florida, who uses the ride-hailing service about once a week, usually when going out at night. She said the March 29 slaying of University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson, who mistakenly got into a vehicle she thought was her Uber ride, has made her even more cautious.
It also has prompted law enforcement agencies and ride-hailing companies to intensify efforts to warn passengers against getting in without checking to ensure both the vehicle and driver are legitimate. Although no official tallies exist, there have been several high-profile cases involving would-be robbers and assailants posing as ride-hailing drivers - often at bars. Police in South Carolina have not said if that was what the driver did in Josephson's case.
"You do have individuals who are predatory and roving around looking for potential victims," said Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, adding that fraudulent drivers are drawn to bars because people might be drunk and not paying attention.
A Chicago-area man was charged with raping four women he picked up at bars after posing as an Uber driver in 2017. He picked up a fifth woman in a taxi, authorities said. Musaab Afundi has pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and his case is ongoing, CBS2 Chicago reported.
In South Carolina, Josephson, 21, had ordered an Uber around 1:30 a.m. after reportedly becoming separated from friends following an evening out at Columbia bars. She mistakenly got into a car driven by 24-year-old Nathaniel David Rowland, according to authorities, who allege he used the childproof locks in his car to imprison Josephson before killing her and dumping her body about 65 miles (105 kilometers) from Columbia. Her funeral was held Saturday in New Jersey, where she grew up.
Rowland is charged with kidnapping and murder.
Then on Wednesday, a 34-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman who got into his car after leaving a Seattle bar on Dec. 16. The King County Sheriff's Office said the man led her to believe he was her driver before pulling the car over and raping her. A judge found probable cause to hold the man on investigation of third-degree rape.
And a man from Stamford, Connecticut, was charged last month with raping and kidnapping two women whom he'd picked up at bars in December, the Greenwich Time reported.
"There is no more dangerous place to be than in a locked car traveling with a stranger," said Bryant Greening, a Chicago attorney who specializes in representing ride-hailing drivers and passengers. "You have to be aware of your surroundings and think how you would react if the situation turns sour ... you have to listen to your instincts."
It's not just women who are at risk from fake ride-hailing drivers, he said. Men also have been robbed after getting into the wrong car.
"There is no discrimination by predators," he said.
Greening urged Uber and Lyft to do more to educate customers and to come up with technological solutions. Also, in the wake of Josephson's death, a bill has been introduced in the South Carolina legislature to require Uber and Lyft drivers to have illuminated signs.
Uber said in a written statement that in coming weeks it will launch a social media campaign, buy ads in college newspapers and begin sending push notifications during pickup to remind passengers about safety steps. It also said it has worked since 2017 with law enforcement and colleges to "educate the public about how to avoid fake rideshare drivers," including by checking a driver's photo and vehicle description against what was sent when a trip is requested.
Lyft said it also provides photos of the driver and information about the vehicle, and some Lyft vehicles have a display on dashboards that changes color to match the passengers' app to help them identify their ride. "We ... are always exploring new, innovative ways to improve the experience for all users, and most importantly, to keep our community safe," the company said.
Orden, the Michigan State University student, said the recent assaults have made her more nervous even though she's already cautious.
"But I feel like in a way that's a good thing," she said. "Now I will take even more precautions."
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