Yadhana Jadoo & Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni

The police have told Uber to tighten up security around its popular and convenient ride-hailing app to ensure that its driver partners are not lured into a criminal trap once they arrive at their pick up points.

Drivers working with Uber Africa feel the app can be used against them. Their insecurity has been heightened by ongoing tension and violence involving metered taxi drivers and owners, who feel Uber is taking away their business.

Over the weekend, a horrific attack in Pretoria saw an Uber driver being set alight in his vehicle. Uber condemned the attack and asked police to do more to ensure driver safety.

But national police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said Uber needed to heighten security within its app to help police “solve this crime”.

“The issue is that Uber drivers and cab drivers are easy targets because they can be called, not knowing they are walking into the hands of these ruthless criminals.

“The administrators of Uber have to put safety mechanisms in place to better identify the people hailing these vehicles. Identities must be verified. We want them to help us help them solve this crime,” Naidoo said.

The Citizen yesterday took a ride with an Uber driver, who asked to go by the pseudonym of “Kevin”. He claims to be part of a mobilisation of drivers who gather to discuss safety measures, including on a WhatsApp group.

Drivers would like Uber to include, on their side of the app, not just the name of the passenger they are fetching but also a picture, ensuring they are fetching the correct person, he said.

“We have a big problem as it stands, a problem of vehicles being hijacked. There is a guy on our group who got an e-mail that his driver was requested by a person who wanted a cash trip.”

The cash trip was a new account, he explained.

“When he got there, he picked up two guys. One sat in front and the other in the back. The next thing they both took out guns and hijacked him. They tied his hands and threw him in the boot.”

Kevin claimed the alleged hijackers then continued using the app in order to force would-be passengers to draw cash from ATMs.

In meetings with Uber, where problems drivers experienced were discussed, he claimed the issue of pictures of passengers was discussed.

“We always say to Uber: ‘When are you going to make the clients put in their pictures? Then, when I go to pick up, I know who I am picking up.’

“If it’s not that person then I won’t open the door. Instead of Uber doing that, drivers are told they should ask the name of that person.”

Kevin then indicated a point at the bottom right corner of his phone, where a picture of the driver should be.

“But it’s not working. They need to be serious about the person who is driving, also. It’s not a one-sided service, it’s both sides.”

Johannesburg police spokesperson Captain Mavela Masondo said hijackings involving Uber drivers were not specifically categorised and it was, therefore, hard to pinpoint how many of them had occurred.

“If Uber drivers have information on how these criminals are targeting them, we ask them to come to us,” he said.

When asked about the app being used to locate and attack drivers, Uber Africa said it had made safety features such as GPS tracking of every trip “a reality”.

“We are deeply committed to the safety of both drivers and passengers. It’s why we have made safety features like GPS tracking a reality,” read a statement from Uber Africa.

“Drivers have access to a 24/7 local emergency line to use in the event they feel unsafe.

“We have also recently partnered with multiple security response services that are able to dispatch security and medical services in emergency situations in a reduced time, in an effort to improve the safety of drivers who use the Uber app.

“Our incident response team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to respond immediately to any reported incidents or accidents globally.

“In addition to our standard safety features, we have hired additional security response teams in areas where our drivers and passengers have reported intimidation.”

The sign-up process also remained the same for both credit cards and cash, Uber added.

“Passengers need to create a password and agree to the terms and conditions and our privacy statement.

“They need to fill in their first and last names, phone number, and preferred language. Once they have completed this part of the sign-up process, Uber sends an SMS to verify their phone number.”

Kevin charged that Uber believed that it only ran the app and not the drivers.

“But an app can’t run itself, so who’s managing the system?” he asked..