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Brazil’s Love Affair With Uber Has Been Ruined by Kidnapping, Robbery, and Murder

Uber, cash, and crime is a bad mix.

This article was originally published in Portuguese on Motherboard Brazil.

In less than three years, a honeymoon between Brazil and Uber, fueled by complimentary mints and bottled water in the back seats of luxury sedans, turned into a turbulent, unsafe relationship, with some rides ending in kidnapping, robbery, and murder.

Several drivers and passengers interviewed by Motherboard described their dangerous and harrowing experiences using the ridesharing service, and there's no shortage of customer complaints on social media. And while Uber has committed to investing more money to support drivers and passengers in Brazil, critics say the company is doing too little too late.

Uber arrived in São Paulo in 2014 with its best service, UberBlack, and locals were amazed by the opportunity to hail black sedans from the company's app. Taxi drivers didn't like the idea and retaliated violently against Uber and its drivers, but their behavior only ended up turning into a free advertisement campaign for the multi-billion dollar company, giving it a legion of loyal supporters across the country.

Less than three years after its national launch, the app is available in more than 40 Brazilian cities, and UberX started to accept drivers with cars manufactured in 2008 or later. In the city of São Paulo alone, the local government claims that more than 50,000 cars registered in ride-sharing apps (it is believed that Uber accounts for 90 percent of them) compared to 38,000 taxi drivers.

With the increasing number of new users and the enrollment of drivers whose only training was watching a YouTube video about how Uber works, the consequences were inevitable: Uber's relationship with both passengers and drivers started showing signs of strain.

Uber has become one of the most popular transportation tools in São Paulo. In the last few months, however, customers started complaining about a drop in the quality of its service. Image: Fotos Públicas

As far as the users are concerned, a quick glimpse at Reclame Aqui, a Brazilian website that gathers complaints from customers, can provide an impression of what is going on. There and in social media, complaints about rude drivers and poor-quality cars have been increasingly frequent.

The expansion of the UberX category took the number of drivers from 10,000 in February 2016 to 50,000 in September 2016. Soon, customers who were used to riding on brand new cars in UberX were riding in cramped lower-quality, 8-year-old vehicles. Uber's aim was to make UberX more democratic, allowing drivers with cheaper cars to become Uber drivers. The increase of the number of users also skyrocketed from 1 million in 2015 to 9 million in the end of 2016.

Most new drivers also fail to provide the standard mint and mineral water combo to which customers were accustomed. Officially, Uber only recommends providing such perks if a driver wants to aim for a five-star rating in the app. However, it's up to the driver to foot the bill.

There have also been user complaints about improper billing—a little-known change in the app's terms of use in the beginning of the year allowed charges to be made before the trips even start, although Uber refunds these charges shortly thereafter.

"Everyone supported Uber once they arrived into the country, because they offered a really appealing service," said Carla Souza, a 31-year-old advertising professional, who preferred to hide her true identity due to safety concerns. "The public was also supported Uber's fight against taxi drivers, which strengthened it in Brazil. However, when we need their support, they claim they are not responsible for any issues."

Souza has serious reasons to complain against the platform. In February, she ordered an Uber in the evening in a wealthy neighborhood in São Paulo. It was raining and she quickly got into the car displayed in the app. When she entered, there were two other people hidden in the car along with the driver. She was the victim of an express kidnapping.  

"Since my case was classified as express kidnapping, Uber did not provide any legal or psychological support, nor did they offer to refund what was stolen"

The criminals held Souza hostage for a couple of hours, forcing her withdraw money from ATMs and buy fancy shoes in a mall in suburban malls, totaling almost 5,000 reais ($1,500 US dollars). She managed to break free from her kidnappers thanks to the help from a cleaning lady in the mall bathroom.

"An Uber employee called to me in the next day and asked me to describe what happened," Souza said. "She showed concern, but told me they had insurance only for death, disablement, and medical expenses following serious injuries. Since my case was classified as express kidnapping, Uber did not provide any legal or psychological support, nor did they offer to refund what was stolen."

At the time of the incident, the company said that they regretted what happened and that the Uber driver would be suspended until the conclusion of further investigations. Although the Uber driver is considered a suspect, police still doesn't know whether or not he had his car stolen by criminals planning to kidnap passengers.

In an attempt to improve their customer service, Uber announced an investment of 200 million reais (approximately $70 million US dollars) in a new office in São Paulo that will be in charge of providing support for passengers and drivers from all over Brazil.

Cash payments put drivers in danger

As far as drivers are concerned, the complaints have been even more strident, although all of them recognize the importance of Uber as either their only source of income or a way to supplement their monthly budget. However, the main complaint made by the partners concerns the lack of security.

When it first came to Brazil, Uber only accepted payments by credit card. Over time, claiming that there was a need to make the service more accessible, the company started accepting cash payments in certain places: first in cities from the Northeast region of Brazil and later in São Paulo. The idea was not only to increase the number of passengers, but also to provide a healthier cash flow for drivers—when payments are made by credit card, it takes a week for them to receive the money from Uber.

The strategy wasn't necessarily bad. The problem was that Uber started allowing cash payments without upgrading its weak registration system for passengers. It was bound to go wrong: ill-intentioned users took advantage of the system to ambush drivers and steal their money, and in a few instances these robberies ended in murder.

Data obtained by Reuters showed a massive increase in the number of attacks against Uber drivers in São Paulo since the unveiling of cash payment in July 2016. In the second quarter of 2016 alone, the police registered the deaths of six drivers; the local press reported at least a dozen.

"I arrived at the spot and two passengers got into the car. During the ride, they asked me to follow a specific route. Suddenly, the passenger in the back seat caught me in a headlock, showed me a gun and announced that it was a robbery."

Wagner Ribeiro, a 57-year-old Uber driver, was the target of one of these ambushes in November 2016, the month that saw the highest number of incidents last year (more than 200).

"I arrived at the spot, near Campo Limpo [a district in the city of São Paulo], and two passengers got into the car," Ribeiro said. "We were heading to Embu das Artes [part of the São Paulo Metropolitan Area]. During the ride, they asked me to follow a specific route. Suddenly, the passenger in the back seat caught me in a headlock, showed me a gun and announced that it was a robbery."

The criminals took his car, his smartphone and left the him in an empty parking lot. Luckily, Wagner found business nearby, where a security guard let him call the police. According to the driver, his car was found in a gas station in Embu das Artes.

"It's very sad, because you're traumatized after such an event," Ribeiro said. "But people in poor suburban areas really need the service. Taxis rarely go there. I have seen many passengers there ordering an Uber to take their children to the hospital, but they don't have credit cards. They can only pay in cash."

Marcelo Corte, 41, another former Uber driver, also got in trouble. He was on his way home after a day of work when a gang attacked him at a traffic light. They held a knife to his neck and stole his smartphone, as well as a the small amount he had earned with cash-paid rides that day (approximately $20 US dollars).

"I went to the police station and they said I was their fifth victim that night," Corte said. "I reported the incident to Uber and they blocked my login [to prevent the robbers from using his account]. Although I considered that a good measure by them, I couldn't work for 48 hours. I asked them if I would be refunded for my losses, but they told me I should have third-party insurance." In the end, Corte wasn't refunded for the stolen money. "I was lucky, because in the same night I found out another driver had been murdered by a gang."

In the early days after the unveiling of cash payments, the registration for the payment method only required basic contact information: a name, an email address and a phone number validated through an SMS code.

Recently, Uber announced that another layer of security would be added. Users who want to pay in cash must also provide their date of birth and CPF, the Brazilian equivalent of a National Security Number, which would help the company ensure that information provided by users is legitimate.

Is Uber guilty?

It's undeniable that Brazil has a crime problem, regardless of Uber. In India, according to Reuters, cash payment were a huge success. However, the murder rate in Brazil is ten times higher than India's. Which leads to the question: could Uber be considered guilty at all for those incidents?

To what extent is Uber responsible? Image: Handout/Uber

The company says they can't be held accountable for incidents that could happen to any other driver, including non-Uber taxi drivers, and that do not have any connection with the app. For example, having your phone stolen while waiting in a traffic light with your window open, could happen to anyone, not just an Uber driver. 

Gisele Truzzi, a Brazilian lawyer who specializes in digital law, argues that the company could be held responsible for incidents involving drivers and passengers. If the company refuses to provide assistance following such incidents, it could be framed under articles 13 and 14 of the Brazilian consumer protection code, which deems companies responsible for such events even when independent contractors are hired.

"Since Uber provides an intermediation platform, the company is jointly responsible for events resulted from such a relationship," Truzzi said. "From the moment Uber makes a profit through this activity, it becomes responsible for supporting the victim, either driver or passenger, in the case of an incident related to the service provided."

There is an ongoing lawsuit to clarify the relationship between Uber and its drivers in Brazil. After a driver was removed from the platform and decided to sue the company, a judge recognized that there was an employment relationship between him and Uber.

Uber claimed that it would take the case to an appeals court and that "Uber partner drivers make their work schedule without any obligation toward Uber, have the freedom to accept or cancel rides, and also have a non-exclusive relationship with the app."

Solutions take time

Being a technology company, Uber almost seems to be following a pattern. First, it establishes itself in a country and seems to be concerned only with expanding its services across different categories. Only serious incidents and popular pressure can force the company to take action and take measures that do not focus specifically on growth.

In India, there were several complaints due to sexual harassment against women passengers in 2015. One of them decided to sue Uber due to the company's apparent refusal to take security measures. Following the backlash, Uber added a "panic button" that allows women to notify the police in emergency situations, as well as another feature allowing users to share data about the ride with trusted contacts.

In Brazil, people had to die before the company adopted restrictive measures to make cash payments safer for drivers.