If you climb into an Uber where the driver doesn't look quite like their pic on the app, you may be unwittingly involved in a shady practice. Uber lost its license to operate in London this week (though CNBC notes it can still offer rides while it's appealing), but that news has "[opened] a window" into what the Wall Street Journal calls the ride-hailing app's "dirty little secret": that thousands of drivers for the service are sharing accounts, swapping in gypsy drivers' photos for those of approved drivers. London's transportation regulator recently determined that about 14,000 Uber rides in the city in late 2018 and early 2019 were conducted by unauthorized drivers, with the company itself saying the phenomenon is happening in the UK, in the US, and in other countries. "We see so many different flavors of fraud in different markets," an Uber spokeswoman tells the Journal.
This "open secret" is discussed in messaging apps and private groups on social media, with drivers temporarily handing over account access to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. "It's not unusual," a longtime Uber driver in Florida says. Harry Campbell, an ex-Uber driver who now runs a blog on ride-sharing, says that non-Uber drivers who take advantage of this underground system often do so because they have issues that would prevent them from getting clearance by the company, such as not being able to pass a background check or not having a driver's license. "Usually the reasons are nefarious," Campbell says. Uber says it has cracked down on the practice in London, with the Uber rep adding that the fixes haven't been a "silver bullet." One telltale sign: a car that's clocked 150 hours in one week, one driver says. "Obviously, that vehicle is shared." (Read more Uber stories.)